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Jokowi's defining test

Grahame Lucas
January 27, 2015

Joko Widodo's "Mr. Clean" image and appeal to young voters were often likened to Obama's promise of change back in 2008. But after 100 days in office, the president struggles to keep it alive, writes DW's Grahame Lucas.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo gestures during the people celebration know as 'Pesta Rakyat' at National Museum on October 20, 2014 in Jakarta, Indonesia (Photo: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
Image: Getty Images/Ulet Ifansasti

Since becoming Mayor of Jakarta several years ago, Joko Widodo has been widely described as a man of the people, from a humble background, who had made it to the top of Indonesia's divisive and corrupt politics as "Mr. Clean." In Jakarta the former furniture salesman made good things happen and improved the lives of ordinary people substantially through educational opportunity, health care and better transportation.

Hundred days after taking the oath of office as the country's president, Jokowi is fighting to keep his "yes, we can" momentum alive in the face of some adversity. Like Obama, the "man of the people" has raised the expectations of the ordinary Indonesians whose support swept him into office to levels he can hardly sustain. As the country's first president without roots in the Suharto dictatorship, his supporters expect miracles.

Nevertheless, there have been fears since the 2014 election campaign pertaining to his lack of experience in national politics where the entrenched elite plays hard ball of their own variety. It is true that Jokowi has never said that righting the economy and cleaning up corruption in high places would be easy, but it is fair to assume that he did not anticipate just how difficult things would be once he came to power.

Grahame Lucas
DW's Grahame LucasImage: DW/P. Henriksen

Indeed, the President has already blinked several times in the face of political realities. In democratic countries the post-election period is always payback time and an opportunity for a newly elected leader to shore up his support. While the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle nominated him as its candidate for the presidency, Jokowi's party leader and ex-president Megawati Sukarnoputri is not a close political ally. And Jokowi needs to dispel the public perception that she, as a representative of the old guard, is the real power behind the throne. That means that "Mr. Clean" has already had to dirty his hands in the ugly process of political horse-trading. His new cabinet reflects political payback to Sukarnoputri and cronyism more than expertise. This has been a great disappointment to his supporters.

Moreover, his attempts to garner political support within his party have plunged him into his first major crisis as president. He has been desperately unlucky, or some would argue, foolish, with his nomination for the post of national police chief. Just days after Jokowi proposed three-star general Budi Gunawan, another close ally of party leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, for the post, Gunawan was declared to be under suspicion of corruption by the Anti-Corruption Commission. But Jokowi should have known that Gunawan has been under investigation for five years after suspicious payments were made to his bank account.

At that point Jokowi could have acted ruthlessly and dropped Gunawan. But he did not. Instead he naively turned to parliament, where the opposition holds sway, hoping that the appointment would be rejected. Instead, opposition MPs delighted in his embarrassment by declaring their support for Budi Gunawan. To make matters worse, the Deputy Chief of the Anti-Corruption Commission has now tendered his resignation after being named a police suspect. Clearly a tit-for-tat feud between two government agencies is raging and the president is dithering. It is hard to imagine how Jokowi could have played his hand any worse. The crisis rumbles on.

Despite this fiasco it would be unfair to argue that Jokowi has botched the start of his presidency. In the wake of the AirAsia crash, which cost 162 lives, he was lauded for the way he demonstrated decisive leadership including taking control of the search and rescue operation and urging the authorities to review air safety in the light of the country's poor record.

Equally positive was his decision to act quickly to abolish fuel subsidies, which swallow up a huge amount of government revenues. This was long overdue. Fortune favors the brave, and the move to increase petrol and diesel by over 30 percent coincided with a dramatic fall in world oil prices. Jokowi plans to use the money thus saved to improve the country's dilapidated infrastructure, which in itself is a major obstacle to foreign investment and the boosting of health care and education. This should in the medium term improve Southeast Asia's most powerful economy. However, Jokowi may well face the music when oil prices rise again.

Apart from the AsiaAir crash, Jokowi has won the most plaudits for defending Indonesia's fish stocks and the restarting executions for drugs offenses. His decision to order the sinking of foreign fishing boats trawling illegally in Indonesia's waters is very popular. Moreover, his hardline stance on the recent execution by firing squad of six convicted drug smugglers, five of whom were foreign nationals, has won him support at home. Dozens more drug mules await execution on death row. Against this background, there is little hope Indonesia will return to a moratorium on the death penalty ushered in by Jokowi's predecessor.

While there are signs that tensions with the opposition-controlled parliament are now abating, deals will have to be struck. Only then will Jokowi be able to introduce the vital reforms he has pledged to implement without losing his popular support. Indeed his entire reform program now hinges on the upcoming budget revision on February 12. The big question now is whether Jokowi's "Yes we can" momentum will carry him through what could be the defining test in his young presidency.

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