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Yudhoyono's popularity wanes

President Yudhoyono's 100th day in office is marked by widespread protests. Prosecutors demand the death penalty for a former anti-corruption chief. The president's cabinet appointees leave many guessing about his commitment to reform. A convoy is attacked (again) on the road to the Freeport mine. Finance Minister Sri Mulyani redeems herself with an attack on tax-evading companies. Inflation rose to its highest point last month. And the president releases his third pop music album.

Top News: Thousands marked the first 100 days of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s second term with demonstrations across Jakarta and several other Indonesian cities on Jan. 28.

Angry at what they said was a lack of progress fighting corruption and relieving widespread poverty, protesters swarmed the presidential palace, the parliament building and several other locations, snarling traffic until the demonstrations quickly fizzled in the late afternoon.
The initial optimism that greeted the president during his inauguration, after he trounced his two competitors during elections last June, has predictably waned.

Several new polls show Yudhoyono’s approval rating has slipped in the face of two prolonged scandals — the $700 million bailout of troubled Bank Century and corruption and murder accusations against the country’s top graft fighters – that have all but stalled the administration’s second term so far.

Prosecutors demanded the death penalty Jan. 19 for the former chief of the country’s anticorruption agency, Antasari Azhar, whom they accuse of masterminding the mafia-style murder of an influential Indonesian businessman.

Azhar’s arrest, together with the subsequent arrest and later exoneration of two other corruption fighters (they had been framed by several senior law enforcement officials), has crippled the institution, the president’s primary tool for routing out graft. Defense attorneys said the  death penalty was laughable, calling the whole case a “total conspiracy.”

The president, who is still filling out his second term cabinet, continues to keep everyone guessing about his commitment to reform and democracy. With the exception of his economic and financial portfolio, Yudhoyono’s initial cabinet appointees shortly after he was inaugurated were  disappointing to many reform-minded analysts. Now he has retained several  controversial old-guard friends among his recently unveiled circle of advisors. Siti Fadilah Supari, the former health minister prone to conspiracy theories who closed down a U.S. research lab in Indonesia because it could have been used to create biological weapons, will be advising the president on health matters.

Ma’ruf Amin, an influential and conservative cleric who serves on the quasi-governmental (but fully controversial) Ulema Council, will be advising the president on religious matters. Amin is behind many of the outlandish fatwas passed by the Council in recent years and is one of the primary forces behind the ongoing persecution of dozens of small Islamic sects deemed heretical by the powerful Ulema Council. This is not good news for pluralists. Former President Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid is surely  spinning in his grave.

Money: Unidentified gunmen again attacked a convoy of employees traveling to the America-owned Freeport-McMoran Gold and Copper mine in Papua Jan. 24. Over the last year, there have been sporadic attacks along the road leading from the site — one of the largest copper and gold mines in the world — to Timika, the closest big city.

Police have been quick to blame an ongoing separatist insurgency in the area and several arrests have been made for past shootings. But activists blame an ongoing dispute over security contracts at the mine between the national police and the military.

As investigations proceed, meanwhile, security has been stepped up in the area. The shootings have not affected the mine’s output. Freeport, in fact, is  enjoying robust earnings as the price of metal rises with the global economic recovery.

In what was probably a very satisfying announcement for the country’s embattled finance minister, Sri Mulyani made public the country’s  worst tax-evading corporations and   lawmakers on Jan. 28.  Among her most impressive achievements is the overhaul of the country’s  long-corrupt tax and customs offices. Collecting taxes is essential to the country’s plan to accelerate much-needed infrastructure reforms.

Bumi Resources, the world’s largest thermal coal exporter, is owned by Aburizal Bakrie, a billionaire businessman, former minister and now opposition party chairman. Bakrie and Mulyani have several times butted heads. Now, Golkar, Bakrie’s political party, has become the  major force behind the Bank Century investigation focused on Mulyani. Bakrie’s  Bumi Resources made Mulyani’s list of tax evaders.

Back in the real world, Indonesia’s inflation rate rose to its fastest pace in seven months during the month of January.

Elsewhere: Nothing – not scandals, not crumbling infrastructure, not rampant poverty, not demonstrations – nothing can stop President Yudhoyono’s pop music career. Indonesia’s crooning leader, a former general, released the third album of his presidency at the end of January. Titled “I’m Sure I Can Get There,” the album is a collection of nine songs all composed by the president. Although Yudhoyono often performs his music in front of public audiences or journalists or anyone who will listen, his songs on the album are performed by famous Indonesian musicians. Yudhoyono justifies his hobby in the liner notes. “It is through these works of art that I hope to convey my inner feelings to the wider community, to the children of Indonesia.”

The country’s national police force is also trying to appear softer to the general public. The institution, among the most distrusted and corrupt in Indonesia, has decided to shed its military nomenclature. That should help.