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Has Jokowi shaken things up?

Gabriel DomínguezJanuary 26, 2015

Joko Widodo came to power on pledges of ushering in an era of change and a new leadership style. But while many praise the Indonesian President for economic reforms, analysts say his 'Mr. Clean' image has been dented.

Indonesien Präsidentschaftswahlen 09.07.2014
Image: Reuters

For many Indonesians, October 20, 2014 seemed like the beginning of a new chapter in the country's recent democratic history. 53-year-old Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, was sworn in as president of the world's fourth most populous country, after narrowly defeating ex-general Prabowo Subianto in a hotly contested election in July.

The move symbolized not only the culmination of the remarkable career of a man who started off as a furniture seller on the island of Java and quickly rose through the ranks of government. It also indicated a generational change as Jokowi became the first president without links to the government of former dictator Suharto, who was overthrown in 1998 after more than three decades in power.

High hopes

Expectations were high when Jokowi came to power. His reputation for being corruption-free, direct and down-to-earth as governor of Jakarta had appealed to many voters, some of whom even compared the 53-year-old to US President Barack Obama who spent part of his childhood in the Southeast Asian nation.

Three months into his presidency, the Indonesian leader has been facing a host of major challenges inherited from previous governments, ranging from fighting the country's endemic corruption and rising inequality, to revitalizing the sluggish economy and improving the infrastructure.

Megawati Sukarnoputri Indonesien Wahlen
Many say Jokowi's cabinet makeup reflects the strong influence exerted by Megawati SukarnoputriImage: AFP/Getty Images

In addition, Jokowi has had to deal with a hostile parliament, given that most of its members are aligned with losing candidate Prabowo.

Given the difficult task ahead and Jokowi's lack of experience in regional and international affairs, many had warned against expecting sensational developments in the first 100 days of his term. But has Jokowi laid the groundwork for a successful presidency? The results are mixed.

Jokowi's team

An early test for the new leader came with the formation of his cabinet. While Jokowi's outsider credentials made him appealing to the electorate during the campaign, they also meant that he lacked the political and patronage networks that other national politicians in Indonesia enjoy.

So he appointed a total of 18 technocrats and newcomers to lead several ministries to implement some of the country's much-needed reforms - a move welcomed both at home and abroad.

However, the other posts of his 34-strong cabinet went to members of his ruling coalition, a move criticized by many as reflecting the strong influence of his party's chairwoman and former president Megawati Sukarnoputri.

"The political mandate from the PDI-P and its party coalition for his presidency created an apparent headache for Jokowi when selecting his ministers. The new Cabinet is obviously not all the president's men," Wahyudi Kumorotomo, professor of Public Administration at Indonesia's Gadjah Mada University wrote on the academic site "The Conversation."

Even more controversial has been his choice for national police chief, Budi Gunawan, suspected by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) of receiving bribes - an appointment that has cast doubts on Jokowi's campaign promise to deliver clean governance. More recently, Bambang Widjojanto, the KPK's deputy chief, tendered his resignation after being arrested. He warned of a campaign to "destroy" the country's graft-fighting agency, amid an escalating row with the police.

The issue of corruption has been plaguing the country for years now, with Indonesia ranking 107th out of 174 nations in Transparency International's 2014 Corruption Perception Index. The president has therefore been under mounting pressure to replace his pick, but has so far refused.

But more than just graft, analysts argue the issue also reflects Jokowi's struggle with consolidating power. Budi is seen as close to Megawati and many in the country consider his nomination a political maneuver aimed at further appeasing the PDI-P.

Yohanes Sulaiman, political analyst and lecturer at the Indonesian Defense University, argues that by nominating Budi as police chief, the president has squandered a lot of the goodwill from people: "Many saw this as proof of Jokowi deferring too much to Megawati at the expense of his principles," he said.

Reducing fuel subsidies

As for the economy, one of the president's top priorities, Jokowi has shown decisiveness in taking on the task of reducing government fuel subsidies, which for years had been a major drain on government fiscal resources, earning him international praise.

Takehiko Nakao, President of the Asian Development Bank, said: "With the extra budget funds resulting from fuel subsidy cuts, the government can now allocate more resources for infrastructure, which are needed to revive and diversify sources of economic growth." In fact, many multinational companies were encouraged by Jokowi's "clean image" and announced plans to expand operations in Indonesia.

"The move to cut fuel subsidies is encouraging since it suggests that Jokowi is serious about economic reform in Indonesia, and is even prepared to take steps that may prove unpopular in the short run," Gareth Leather, Asia Economist at Capital Economics told DW.

Indonesien Benzin Tankstelle von Pertamina in Jakarta
Jokowi earned international praise by acting decisively on curbing fuel subsidiesImage: R. Gacad/AFP/Getty Images

But while the cuts were welcomed by economists, they also partly dented his popularity as the price of petrol and diesel across the archipelago went up by more than 30 percent in mid-November.

The impact, however, was partly cushioned by the recent fall in global oil prices.

Helping the poorest

The president has also made good on his campaign promise to help the nation's poorest by diverting some of the extra funds to areas such as health and education. Just days after his inauguration, the government launched the Indonesia Smart Card and Indonesia Heath Card, guaranteeing free medical treatment for the poor as well free schooling.

Analyst Sulaiman argues this gesture towards the country's low and middle-classes certainly offset the impact of the fuel price hike. "Jokowi's biggest political capital comes from the impression among many that he genuinely cares about people and that he is one of them, which to some degree may come from his humble background," Sulaiman said.

And it seems that Jokowi has kept this personal connection with the people as seen in his reaction to the loss of AirAsia Flight QZ8501 where he met with the victims' families and organized a swift response.

Dealing with the opposition

A somewhat unexpected positive aspect of Jokowi's first three months in office has been the apparent improvement of relations with the opposition, which initially seemed bent on making his life very difficult in parliament.

"There have been internal squabbles within Golkar, one of the biggest parties within the opposition, which have led them to tone down the rhetoric," said Sulaiman.

Indonesien Parlament Archiv 15.08.2014
Jokowi's relations with the opposition in Parliament have apparently improved. But how long will this last?Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Bagus Indahono

If Golkar as an organization were to switch sides, or if a large enough number of individual lawmakers was to defect to Jokowi, he could gain the legislative majority he now lacks.

On top of that, in an apparent concession to the president, the opposition-dominated parliament recently approved direct elections for governors and mayors, overturning controversial legislation passed in September under Jokowi's predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, which had led to protests and criticism amongst many Indonesians.

'No clemency for drug traffickers'

Despite the signs of progress in parliament, one of Jokowi's latest decisions has led many outside the country to slam his stance on human rights and tarnish his image. Indonesia brushed aside last-minute appeals by foreign leaders and, on January 18, executed a total of six people convicted of drug trafficking, including five foreigners from Vietnam, Malawi, Nigeria, Brazil and the Netherlands.

President Jokowi not only rejected clemency requests, but also refused a last-minute appeal by Brasilia and Den Haag to spare their countrymen. Instead, he defended the executions, saying those convicted of drug trafficking would not receive a presidential pardon since Indonesia is facing an "emergency" over drug use.

The incident didn't only heighten diplomatic tensions, but also triggered international criticism from human rights groups. Amnesty International said the first executions under Indonesia's new president were "a retrograde step" for human rights. Jakarta had an unofficial four-year moratorium on executions until 2013, when five people were put before the firing squad. There were no executions last year.

Another controversial issue, especially among Indonesia's neighbors, has been Jakarta's decision to sink foreign boats caught illegally fishing in Indonesian waters. While the new administration has defended the policy as a "necessary deterrent," others argue the issue is not one of legality but propriety.

Indonesien Hinrichtung Drogenhändler Marco Archer Cardoso Moreira
Jokowi rejected clemency for drug trafficking convictsImage: REUTERS/Beawiharta

"If any Malaysian fishermen accidentally enter into Indonesian waters, there is no need to sink their boats. Just escort them back to the Malaysian waters," Malaysian Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi Ad was quoted as saying by the "The Rakyat Post."

The road ahead

It's been 100 days since Jokowi assumed office, and the so-called "Jokowi-effect" seems to have been replaced by realism. The new leader has offered Indonesia the prospect of a fresh start, but he also has his work cut out for him. Analyst Gregory Poling, Indonesia expert with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies says Jokowi has passed through the period of post-election euphoria and into the gritty realm of day-to-day governing.

"For every step taken toward necessary reforms, his administration seems to take another backward," Poling underlines. Moving forward, he argues, the electorate will be looking to see whether his pledges of good governance will outweigh patronage politics within his coalition, and especially whether he can step out of Megawati's shadow.