John Mcbeth, Senior Writer

An opportunity for Yudhoyono to rise above rhetoric

Now in the final two months of his decade-long presidency, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has taken to the role of the wise elder statesman like a lame duck to water, presiding over what is hoped will be a seamless transition and talking grandly about how democracy, Islam and modernity are able to coexist in the world's largest Muslim-majority nation.

"I promise to help anyone who becomes the next president," he declared in his final Independence Day state-of- the-nation address. "It is my moral obligation."

If that's the case, then why doesn't he help Indonesian Democrat Party - Struggle (PDI-P) successor Joko Widodo in the best way he could by raising fuel prices and sharing in some of the subsidy burden that belongs to him as well. Otherwise, it all amounts to the same meaningless rhetoric that has often marked his rule.

It is not lost on anyone that as the main opposition party between 2004 and 2014, PDI-P opposed every price increase, mostly out of sheer bloody-mindedness. But with fuel and power subsidies alone rising to 350.3 trillion rupiah (S$38.5 billion) in the revised 2014 budget, or nearly a fifth of total government spending, the imperatives are there for all to see.

And it will only get worse. Factoring in non-energy subsidies, such as food and fertiliser, the total subsidy bill is projected to soar from this year's 403 trillion rupiah to 433.5 trillion rupiah next year, with energy consuming 365.5 trillion rupiah of that.

Government sources say that at a recent meeting between the two, Mr Joko proposed an arrangement under which Dr Yudhoyono would raise the price of subsidised premium fuel and diesel by 1,000 rupiah a litre before his term ends and he (Mr Joko) would do the same after he takes office. That would leave it at 8,500 rupiah, still short of the world market price of about 11,000 rupiah.

Dr Yudhoyono refused and the revised 2014 budget went forward, inclusive of additional subsidy spending. But as a stickler for form and protocol, he may have hopefully been waiting for the Constitutional Court's predictable decision last Thursday, rejecting losing candidate Prabowo Subianto's bid to overturn the result of the July 9 presidential election. The pair have a second transition meeting scheduled for later this week, which will give him a chance to change his mind. After all, with the budget deficit likely to exceed 3 per cent of GDP this year, what does he really have to lose compared to the harm it will do to the economy?

Some analysts believe he is worried that a price rise will cause a spike in inflation and lead to more Indonesians rejoining the 28-29 million who live below the poverty line - a legacy he may be anxious to avoid after seeing the official number of poor fall by 4.5 million during his presidency.

Others suspect he wants to strike a deal with Mr Joko that will ensure post-retirement legal protection for him and his family. His son Edhie Baskoro Yudhoyono is under suspicion of taking a US$200,000 (S$250,000) handout from former Democrat Party chairman Anas Urbaningrum - money that allegedly came from kickbacks linked to the Hambalang sports complex scandal.

Now on trial and facing a hefty jail term, Anas has claimed Mr Edhie, the party secretary-general, received the money in April 2010. The Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK), still hot on the trail of others connected with the case, has pointedly held off questioning him, perhaps until the President steps down on Oct 20.

Mr Joko has made it clear to those around him that he will not bargain with Dr Yudhoyono, who has now taken the Democrat Party and its 61 seats out of Mr Prabowo's so-called Red and White Coalition and into a centrist position, where he says it will vote with the PDI-P-led ruling coalition if there is merit in the new president's policies.

With the 91-seat Golkar being pulled in different directions by supporters of chairman Aburizal Bakrie, advisory council head Akbar Tandjung and vice-president-elect Jusuf Kalla, Mr Joko has the option of inviting the Democrats and Prabowo running mate Hatta Rajasa's National Mandate Party (PAN) into his government. That would give it a narrow 15-seat majority in the 560-seat Parliament, building on the 207 seats currently held by PDI-P and its three coalition partners.

Considering PDI-P chairman Megawati Sukarnoputri's bitter feelings towards Dr Yudhoyono, Mr Joko may well be going against her wishes if he offers the Democrats a place at the table. But with Ms Megawati pledging to stay out of the Cabinet-building process, this may serve as the first genuine test of his independence.

For Dr Yudhoyono, agreeing to share in a fuel price hike would no doubt give the party an entry into the incoming government, provided of course there are no hidden strings attached. The sad truth about the outgoing President, however, is that he has rarely done anyone any favours if he thinks his image is at stake. Think back to the 2008 Bank Century bailout and the way his failure to own up on that decision left the two cleanest Cabinet members, Vice-President Boediono and Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati, twisting in the wind and the target of those trying to turn a policy decision into a criminal act.

The whole affair marked the point when many lost faith in his leadership - it showed that while Dr Yudhoyono demands loyalty, he gives little in return.

Now, in the twilight of his presidency, he has an opportunity to redeem himself. It would induce a feeling of goodwill after the bad taste left by Mr Prabowo's farcical legal challenge and give a leg-up to a well-meaning successor.