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Indonesia's Renaissance Man Finds His Star Rising

September 23, 2004|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Four-star general. Cabinet minister. Singer. President. Any of these accomplishments might be enough for most people -- but not for Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. He wants to be called doctor too.

On Saturday morning, two days before voters overwhelmingly chose him to be Indonesia's next president, the 55-year-old Yudhoyono appeared before a panel of six scholars and gave a Power Point presentation defending his doctoral thesis. His subject: the development of agriculture to overcome unemployment and eradicate poverty.

He passed the test with top marks and has only one more exam to clear before he is awarded a PhD in agricultural economics from the Bogor Institute of Agriculture.

"His dissertation was excellent, and he answered all the questions from the examiners very smoothly," said economics professor Bunasor Sanim, the head of the panel. "He wrote his dissertation himself, so he really understands the subject."

For Indonesia, a president who knows something about economics would be a welcome change.

The country has struggled to recover from the Asian economic collapse of 1997. Corruption is endemic, poverty is widespread and investors, both foreign and domestic, are reluctant to put their money here. Unemployment has soared, the education system is in a shambles and separatist violence besets the outlying provinces.

As the counting of Monday's vote continued, Yudhoyono rolled up an insurmountable lead. With more than 80% of the ballots tallied by this morning, he was trouncing incumbent President Megawati Sukarnoputri by 61% to 39%, the General Election Commission reported. At this point, even if Megawati were to win all of the untabulated votes, it would not be enough to give her victory.

Megawati maintained her silence Wednesday, unwilling to concede defeat on the basis of unofficial returns. A campaign official said she would not speak about the outcome until the commission had certified the results Oct. 5.

Jeffrey Winters, a Northwestern University professor and Indonesia specialist who visited the president at her home Tuesday night, said she appeared to be "shellshocked" by the election results.

"The mood was grim," Winters said. "It felt like a funeral. Megawati looked dispirited. She wasn't expecting this."

Megawati's reluctance to concede has put the gentlemanly Yudhoyono in the awkward position of being unable to declare victory and has limited his ability to begin laying out his agenda. Since the election, he has maintained a low profile.

"We can't do anything until the fat lady sings," said Muhammad Lutfi, a campaign aide.

Yudhoyono, commonly known by his initials SBY, met Wednesday with teachers and unemployed workers, giving them the message that jobs and education were top concerns. He also said he would seek a peaceful resolution to fighting in Aceh, where the army has been battling separatists for 28 years.

Aides say one of Yudhoyono's highest priorities will be tackling corruption, which permeates every aspect of the country's economy and legal system.

Yudhoyono's huge margin gives him a mandate for change but also creates high expectations.

The son of a low-ranking army officer, Yudhoyono was educated at the Indonesian Military Academy, where he was honored as its best graduate in 1973, according to his biographer, Usamah Hisyam.

He rose quickly through the ranks and was sent three times to the United States for training, including an 18-month stint in Kansas, where he also picked up a master's degree in business management from Webster University.

He served as chief U.N. military observer in Bosnia-Herzegovina and later was appointed Indonesia's top security minister by two presidents, including Megawati. A Muslim, he believes in a secular, democratic government.

Yudhoyono has a library of 13,000 books that takes up three large rooms of his house, Hisyam said.

A onetime military speechwriter, Yudhoyono is very detail-oriented, taking time to correct even the punctuation in the biography Hisyam wrote.

"Nobody can trick him, because he is a very smart person," Hisyam said. "He can do everything, and he always excels at what he is doing. He is a hard worker and a perfectionist."

The soft-spoken Yudhoyono remains modest despite his successes. On the campaign trail, he often took time to listen at length to the views and complaints of voters he met.

His singing ability has added to his popularity. During the campaign, he sang at his rallies and appeared on the television show "Akademi Fantasi Indosiar," an Indonesian version of "American Idol."

Although the United States has been on good terms with Megawati, Yudhoyono's election is likely to be welcomed by Washington in the belief that he will be more aggressive in tackling the country's economic problems and in combating terrorism.

"Potentially he could be very, very good," one Western diplomat said. "He's certainly well-qualified. He has a golden opportunity to turn Indonesia around in a hurry."

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