The true test of statesmanship oftentimes does not occur when a president is in office, when he or she holds massive power that can be abused or turned as a means to do good. The real test frequently comes when he or she is already out of office. Colloquially known in Indonesia as the Post-Power-Syndrome (PPS) Yudhoyono qualifies for trying to find his bearing in his post power world of a have-been.
Being a holdover from the authoritarian New Order era, BJ Habibie was a much-loathed figure during his short stint as president. Students and pro-democracy activists saw him as an accidental president who would steamroll any opposition to prolong the New Order regime.
But after his bid for reelection and his attempt to control Golkar failed in 1999, Habibie was quick to realize that his time was gone and decided to step away from the limelight. Today, he is a much respected figure in the country, playing the role of an elder statesman, often solicited for political wisdom.
While in office, Megawati Soekarnoputri was widely seen as an impulsive politician, someone who could put so much emotion into the job of running the country that her memoir was titled Menangis dan Tertawa Bersama Rakyat (Crying and Laughing with the People).
Early in her retirement, Megawati began to display another trait, a vindictive streak that led her to continue to gripe over her defeat in the 2004 presidential election. But over time she started to wise up. She buried her political ambitions for good and the 2014 presidential election was the moment when she decided to choose what was best for the country, if not the party.
Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid was already a statesman before he became president. He was a cultural leader who engaged in a fight against the New Order, a struggle that had taken its toll on the well-being of his family. His ouster in 2001 only helped to cement his status as a heroic figure in the country’s political history. Now, there is a growing call from the public to make him a national hero.
Former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, however, is in a league of his own. His life after relinquishing the country’s highest office has been hectic, busy and incredibly loud. Soon after stepping down, he decided to take over the Democratic Party leadership after the erstwhile chairman Anas Urbaningrum was arrested for corruption.
In early 2016, Yudhoyono and his wife set off on a journey around Java in a trip called “Tour de Java”, which was billed officially as a meet-and-greet with his party rank and file. Many, however, saw the outing as a means of testing the water for a possible presidential run for his wife, former first lady Ani Yudhoyono.
In the past two years, Yudhoyono appears to have made no effort to avoid the spotlight and has relished any opportunity to return to the news cycle. In the past few weeks, Yudhoyono has been back in the headlines for his back-and forth spat with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, especially in his effort to clear his name of the allegations that he was behind the massive rallies against Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama over charges of blasphemy late last year.
Last week, Yudhoyono decided to up the ante by accusing the Jokowi government of eavesdropping on his private conversations. In manic Trump-like mode, Yudhoyono threw a fit on Twitter last week, a telltale sign for all of us that despite leaving office two years ago, the former president will not go gently into that good night.
Why has Yudhoyono continued to rage against the dying of the light? While other former presidents have rested on their laurels, why does he continue doing things that make him look petty?
Anyone who followed his presidency knows that Yudhoyono has the ambition to become a world class statesman. Throughout his presidency, he made moves that he hoped could elevate himself on the global stage. He flew to New York in 2013, to receive an award for religious tolerance from the Appeal for Conscience Foundation, an accolade many at home and overseas felt he did not deserve.
With his diplomatic skill and proficiency in English, Yudhoyono also engaged actively on the United Nations Secretary General’s High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the post-2015 Development Agenda, chairing the panel with then United Kingdom prime minister David Cameron and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. He was also disappointed by his failure to win the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize despite his role in ending the decades long conflict in Aceh.
Yudhoyono has a cognitive dissonance problem. He believes he is a world-class statesman, but his actions betray him. He has long spoken about democracy and meritocracy, but he gave the ticket to contest the Jakarta gubernatorial election to his eldest son Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono.
He talks about decency in politics and aspires to become a leading voice, but has been too active on Twitter and other social media platforms, commenting on issues better left to the government to handle.
Armchair psychoanalysts have long theorized that Yudhoyono is a self-absorbed politician who is too preoccupied with burnishing his own image. This would appear to lie behind his acute obsession with wanting to build harmony and avoiding disharmony at all costs. When serving as president, he was too preoccupied with finding a consensus so that his policies would please everyone.
He liked to be seen as a consensus builder and a solidarity maker, traits he thought were required for him to be regarded as a world statesman. It is perhaps no wonder that he got so little done.