Jul 12, 2015

Perhaps the most important thing to know about the President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, is that he flies economy. In a country recovering from dictatorship (which ended in 1998), and struggling with a political class replete with dynastic elitism; a leader whose image and background resonate with the “common man” is truly a breath of fresh air. It was these unusual little things, as much as his ambitious economic policies and reform plans, that, according to analysts, won him the election: his habit, as Governor of Jakarta, to walk around the city and talk to its people; his beginnings as a carpenter’s son turned modest entrepreneur – his love for Metallica. But this leader is significant not only as a common man trying to clean up Indonesian politics, his election is unprecedented even among the numerous taking place around the world. Time has called him “a new hope for democracy”: perhaps they are referring the election of an outsider in a world ruled by political parties. Where frustrated peoples all over Asia have turned to hardline nationalist or authoritarian leaders; Jokowi stands out – the question is whether he will continue to do so. With successes and failures of Mr. Widodo are also tied the fates of technocrats (leaders believing that experts deserve ministerial positions), populists, and those who fight the political establishment. As of July 2015, nearly a year completed, it isn’t going too badly.


Indonesia itself is a country that is unique, and miraculous in its mere existence; it is the fourth most populous nation in the world. The most obvious of its contradictions is the fact that it is a single country, composed of thousands and thousands of islands, many uninhabited, some uncharted. This sprawling archipelago is also the home of the world’s largest Muslim population: in that light, their peace and prosperity itself is special, in Mr. Widodo’s words, “proof that Islam and democracy can go together”. But it wasn’t always that way – far from it – Indonesia is, in fact, a country emerging from a modern history of authoritarianism and dictatorship. Independence was followed immediately by 20 years of rule under founding president Sukarno, which concluded with an overthrow soon after he tried to immortalize his authoritarian rule into Presidency for Life. The overthrow, however, only gave way to the military dictatorship of General Suharto: who maintained a façade of democracy while harshly repressing opposition, and maintaining an iron grip on government. He did use this unopposed power to initiate a variety of economic policies and projects that boosted the nation’s manufacturing sector and made it one of the fastest growing economies in the world. But 30 years of stifling dissent left its indelible mark: Suharto’s ugly downfall in 1998 left a legacy of military interference, rampant corruption and nepotism, and a political culture of dynasties, generals and dominance of age-old political parties. Since the reinstatement of democracy, Indonesia has seen 9 years of presidency under an ex-general, and 4 years under one of the two political parties that were the puppet opposition during the Suharto regime. In this context, the election of Jokowi – a middle class entrepreneur who impressed as mayor of a medium-sized town – is nothing short of a miracle. His opponent, Prabowo Subianto, was Suharto’s son-in-law, and an ex-general. His patron, the head of the political party that reluctantly backed him, the PDI-P, is Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of Sukarno, and an ex-president. His predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was also an ex-general. It is a common theory that Megawati wanted to stand again herself; but demonstrations and rallies organized by the people forced the PDI-P to reluctantly back Jokowi, probably realizing he was far more popular than her. The party she founded, the PDI, was one of the only three parties allowed to contest elections under Suharto; it remains one of the biggest forces in Indonesian politics. Her dominance is testified by the appointment of her son and daughter to the party’s central board, and the latter becoming a cabinet minister in the new government; she is said to have ambitions for them as future leaders of the country. In this political elite of family fiefdoms and ambitious generals; Jokowi’s walks and casual conversations with slum-dwellers as governor, and his refusal to accept a government salary as mayor stood out: his candidature for the presidency came as a shock, his victory called the final step in Indonesia’s transition to true democracy. It was an ugly election, to be sure, mud-slinging on either side (Jokowi bore the brunt, called a colourful variety of names and things through the campaign), allegations of soldiers intimidating voters to cast in Prabowo’s favour, and, absurdly, both sides claiming victory. But President-elect Widodo gave his people hope with his victory statement, that referred to the hard-fought and divisive election and called for “national healing” and unity; indicating his willingness to cooperate with Prabowo. Outgoing President Yudhoyono was also given credit for asking for his party and the army’s neutrality, and ensuring a smooth handover of power to the country’s third directly elected president. Technocratic governance – the appointment of ministers based on ability and expertise instead of patronage or electoral performance, populist policies – to benefit the people of Indonesia and not the political elite, his effective, hands-on leadership – that created real change in Solo and Jakarta, his characteristic humility – and not the shameless flaunting of his wealthy predecessors: this was the promise of Jokowi.


But, on 22nd July, this ceased to be quite so important. Because now, and in future, Jokowi will be judged on his achievements and not his promises. His biggest challenge (arguably) doesn’t sound all that intimidating: avoiding the plagues of collusion and patronage that would make him just another of the elite. The level of collaboration between parties and leaders is astounding; the current vice president Jusuf Kalla was also vice president under Yudhoyono, and presidential candidate for a third party in between. Mr. Widodo is the first true outsider, and that means he may find himself rather alone and tasked with the prospect of standing up to an entire political establishment. The challenge includes a Parliament dominated by Prabowo’s coalition; and also a party that does not accept him – and continues to be loyal to Megawati. The times when his loyalty to Megawati is tested against his loyalty to the people: those are the moments when his mettle will be tested, and Indonesia will find out whether he is the man who will transform Indonesian politics. He’s walked a tight rope in his first year, appointing a cabinet that had both technocrats, including experienced workers and field experts in economic and other posts, and influential politicians, including Megawati loyalists, an ex-general, and other party workers close to Megawati and Kalla: he did, however, only appoint leaders cleared by the country’s anti-corruption commission (the KPK). In these times of confusion, he may choose to remember that it was the common people and citizens of Indonesia that brought him to power; not the reluctant PDI-P, whose poor campaign effort nearly lost him the election, or Megawati Sukarnoputri, who would rather have held the post herself. When the PDI-P’s support seemed unsure, spontaneous demonstrations and rallies organized by volunteers not affiliated with any political party became undeniable evidence that the people wanted Jokowi; as late as July 5, 2014, a number of bands held a concert in support of Joko that was designed and organized completely by spontaneous volunteers. As The Conversation points out, it was this inexorable and insuppressible will of the people: to form Jokowi electoral volunteer groups, to donate where the PDI-P was slow to fund, to take out time and make the effort to campaign through merchandise and events, for no personal benefit except the election of a man they truly believed Indonesia needed as president; this, they say, got him elected. His greatest failure and betrayal would be to pander to a party and political system he owes almost nothing to. Where the question of Megawati’s interference in policy comes in, The Economist goes so far as to advocate that he “ditch” the PDI-P if necessary and form his own party; instead of betraying the people who put him in power.


The issue, however, that most would regard as Indonesia’s most pressing is one that we are all too familiar with here in India. The endemic, all encompassing corruption has its roots in the Sukarno era; and has just gotten progressively worse. Recent studies suggest that institutional corruption is worse than India, and ease of doing business is only a little better; nepotism is rife. Jokowi does face a challenge here: President Yudhoyono was also elected with the mandate of fighting this corruption, but figures suggest it worsened rather than improved over his term. It was surprising; but analysts have explained that no matter how clean a man may be, the realities of fighting corruption once they are in power can overwhelm them. Some fear the same fate for President Widodo, whose strong and effective tackling of corruption in Solo and in the two years at Jakarta was one of the primary reasons for his popularity. He developed a reputation for harsh treatment of bribe-taking officials; a bit like the recent Hindi movie Gabbar, there was a fear in Jakarta among businessmen and government officials of getting “Jokowied”. At the national level, he does have one ally: the KPK (Corruption Eradication Commission), who have, under Yudhoyono, developed a reputation of being trustworthy and of fearlessly examining everybody: lofty politicians to big-shot policemen. Popular among the citizens, the KPK could help Jokowi with the daunting task of cleaning up a government where nearly every official at every level everywhere is regularly taking bribes. He has taken initiatives in his first year, focused a lot on removing the opportunity to take bribes: he has tried to move more and more government services online, and continued Yudhoyono’s project of e-procurement, which will also save billions of dollars. Large scale graft is as big an issue, and as a first step President Widodo has tried to clean up the oil and gas sector: by reforming government owned companies and replacing their members. However, he disappointed many by refusing to take sides in the most recent spat between the KPK and the police; in which many assert that the KPK was simply doing its job. It was probably his most criticized decision so far, for he nominated Budi Gunawan, a man known to be close to Megawati, as chief of police; before the KPK pointed out the previously suspected fact that he is guilty of corruption. In (seeming) retaliation, the police arrested two KPK members on unclear charges; Jokowi remained silent. Instead of siding with the KPK he handed the issue to an independent panel: who did in fact recommend that the appointment be revoked, and confirmed that the KPK was right. If, as this disappointing show suggests, pressure from Megawati prevents him from dealing with corruption, he will be simply repeating the failures of his predecessor.


Just like another one-year old head of state burdened with supernormal expectations, Narendra Modi; Jokowi has spent a significant part of his first year traveling abroad, and inviting world leaders home. He has been tirelessly courting foreign investment, and rejuvenate interest in the country: which has suffered due to the reputation of corruption, and the difficulty businesses face here. He has tried to sell a new image of Indonesia, and tried to woo investors with his own reputation and track record: promising they will be investing in a different, corruption-free country under him, and that he will personally guarantee they face no harassment. It is one of the steps he has taken to bolster Indonesia’s slowing economy; and businessmen have reported a significant improvement in interactions with the government. He has obtained funding for several infrastructural projects that are part of his plan to revolutionize transport and transport-dependent industries; but he is also having to manage a balancing act between boosting manufacturing in Indonesia and attracting FDI. The government’s most celebrated move so far has been the following up on Joko’s promise to cut fuel subsidies: he has overachieved, removing subsidies on petrol and diesel altogether. An unpopular decision, he faced protests at the time of his first cuts: but falling oil prices helped him convince the Indonesian people of the need to end the subsidies: which has freed up billions of dollars to spend on infrastructure and societal welfare. He has also implemented two of his successful initiatives in Jakarta at the national level: the Smart Card scheme, and the Health Card scheme; that seek to guarantee health insurance and 12 years of free education to Indonesia’s poor. He has also included 8 women in his cabinet; and initiated legislation to mandate a Parliament that is 30% female – part of his commitment to gender equality. Much still needs to be done: economic growth has remained woefully low the last two quarters, corruption is far from conquered, and Indonesians are disappointed that he has not really stood up to the political establishment so far. He has also been heavily criticized by international observers for his aggressive, ham-handed response to foreign affairs issues; it may be popular with the voters, but is rather close to Prabowo’s nationalist rhetoric. Justifying the actions as a more assertive role for Indonesia on the international table, he has: executed a number of foreign drug smugglers despite appeals from their governments, resulting in angered Australian, Brazilian & Dutch governments pulling out their ambassadors; and made a policy of destroying illegal fishing boats in Indonesian waters, frustrating Indonesia’s neighbours, from Malaysia to China. In spite of these tarnishes, some feel that his unique stature in Indonesian politics may just be matched by what he accomplishes; that one year on, it looks like he could be the man to deliver the change Indonesia needs.



His importance is, however, more than that. He represents an alternative: Indonesia could have chosen the nationalistic, majoritarian, strongman Prabowo Subianto; like many Asian nations have recently – instead it opted for a different kind of leader. Indonesia faces the same ethnic and religious conflicts that most of Asia does: but they’ve chosen a leader whose byword is pluralism. His deputies (now his replacements) in Solo and Jakarta are minority-Christian, and he endorses the empowerment of all demographic groups while remaining a sincere Muslim. His humble moderation and progressive pluralism are especially significant because it is in desperation that democracies all over have turned to men who may compromise secularism, social welfare and even democracy for economic growth and nationalistic aims. In Joko Widodo, Indonesia has created a different solution: it remains to be seen which will triumph.

Photo Credits: State Dept./Erik A. Kurniawan/Flickr

References: The Economist, Wikipedia, The Conversation, Foreign Affairs, TIME, The Jakarta Globe, The Jakarta Post, Lowly Institue, The Guardian

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