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Indonesia: Now the Real Work Begins

After emerging victorious from the most polarized presidential election in Indonesian history, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is due to be sworn in as the seventh president of Republic of Indonesia, on 20 October 2014. His victory over Prabowo Subianto has been touted as a breakthrough for Indonesia’s maturing democracy and a major watershed in the country’s history. Prabowo, a former military general and son-in-law of the late Suharto, ran a well-organized and more generously financed campaign, but it was not good enough to overcome Jokowi’s unprecedented volunteer-based, youth-oriented campaign. Yet winning the election may prove to be easier for Jokowi than meeting the many challenges that lie ahead.

A Step in the Right Direction?

Indonesia is still a young democracy. Barely a generation ago, the country was ruled by a strongman, Suharto, who centralized power in himself and an inner circle comprising family members, military generals, and rich businessmen. All this came undone in 1998, when financial crisis and mass protests brought an end to his thirty-two years of autocratic rule. A nascent reform movement materialized that sought to uproot the corruption and nepotism inherent in Suharto’s “New Order” Indonesia. Other monumental changes included the decentralization of power from the central government to the districts and freedom of the press.

In many ways, the success of Indonesia’s democratic transition is embodied in Jokowi’s emergence onto the political scene and triumphant ascent to the highest office in the land. Jokowi’s meteoric rise from a common businessman to president of the world’s 16th largest economy in barely a decade captured the aspirations and enthusiasm of a young nation born out of the cauldron of the reform movement that overthrew Suharto in 1998. There is no shortage of hype surrounding the newest and most visible face in Indonesia’s national politics. A fan of heavy metal music and checkered shirts, Jokowi’s engaging, consultative approach to decision-making (including opening discussion on cabinet appointments to the public via online polling) and “common man” image enjoys widespread appeal, and his can-do style of leadership is celebrated as a breath of fresh air from stifling bureaucratic ineptness in many state institutions. His performances on the campaign trail, as well as during his tenure as mayor of Solo and governor of Jakarta, reveal a different sort of leader compared to the presidents who preceded him. Indeed, despite being handicapped by the lateness of his nomination and what proved to be a weak election campaign, Jokowi managed to prevail on the strength of his personality and effective use of social media.

The Rocky Road Ahead

Having secured his victory, Jokowi must now turn to the business of running his government. To that end, Jokowi’s greatest challenge will be to assemble a working majority of political allies while maintaining his own agenda. Much will depend on his ability to strike this balance. At present, Indonesia’s president-elect has provided little indication of what his agenda would be. Aside from cursory mention of reform and mental revolutions, little can be gleaned from his campaign speeches. Moreover, his record as mayor of Solo (two terms) and governor of Jakarta (because of his election to high office Jokowi will serve only two years of a 5-year term) reveals an efficient technocrat who gets the job done, not a strategist with a vision for the future.

Ironically, while Jokowi’s relative lack of political experience may have enhanced his appeal during the presidential election campaign, it is likely to pose significant problems for him once he assumes office. For starters, Jokowi can only count on support from a minority of the Parliament’s members. This poses at least three problems for him.

First, the party coalition that supported his candidacy managed to secure only a third of the parliamentary seats in the April 2014 election. Unless defections take place, the other two thirds belong to the coalition corralled by his opponent, Prabowo. Having spent a fortune on his campaign and come within a whisker of winning, Prabowo is unwilling to concede defeat. Immediately following the election Prabowo filed a legal challenge on grounds of electoral irregularities in as many as 52,000 out of the country’s 480,000 polling stations. Even though the Constitutional Court has ruled in favor of the election result, it can be expected that the Prabowo camp will attempt to derail Jokowi’s reform program by placing obstacles in the way of his minority government. This assumes however, that Prabowo’s “Merah-Putih” (“Red and White,” with reference to the Indonesian flag) coalition will itself maintain its internal unity and coherence. There is presently evidence of discontent within at least two coalition partners, Golkar and PPP (the United Development Party), whose leaderships are believed to be considering defection.

Second, Jokowi will also have to manage divergent interests within his own camp. He has boldly claimed that he will rely on merit in the selection of cabinet members. The question is whether he will be afforded this latitude in a culture deeply inclined toward patronage and patrimonialism. His coalition partners and members of his own party will be seeking ministerial positions and other appointments purely as rewards for supporting his election. In particular, Jokowi will have to evolve his relationship with Megawati Sukarnoputri, his chief patron, daughter of Indonesia’s first president (Sukarno), President of Indonesia from 2001-2004, and the head of his party (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, PDI-P for short). Furthermore, Megawati’s daughter, Puan Maharani, harbors political ambitions and will be demanding an important role in Jokowi’s government. At the same time, Jokowi would also be aware of the fact that his running mate, Jusuf Kalla, contributed significantly to his victory by way of his considerable popularity in Eastern Indonesia and strong standing within Golkar, the party which he used to lead as chairman. Golkar was the vehicle that kept Suharto in power for most of his thirty-two year presidency. While presently still a member of Prabowo’s opposition coalition, it is a known fact, as alluded to above, that internal dissension has emerged within Golkar as to whether the party’s interests are best advanced in opposition or in government (indeed, Golkar has never been in the opposition). Should segments of Golkar gravitate towards Jokowi and Kalla, this might give rise to tussles with Megawati and the PDI-P, in which case Jokowi would be well advised to sidestep potential party intrigues that might otherwise consume him and render him less able to focus on the economic and political transformation he hopes to achieve in Indonesia.

Finally, much has been made of the fact that Jokowi is the first Indonesian president who has come from outside of the country’s elite political, business, and military circles, and who does not have any ties to the Suharto regime. This is partly true, for Jokowi is neither a scion of a powerful Suharto-era business or political family, nor does he have a military background. He is a self-made man from a humble background who emerged from bankruptcy to become the owner of a successful furniture business. Yet that is where the differences end. While his life before he entered politics was lived outside of Indonesia’s elite circles, he could not have won the presidency without their strong support. And this he did. In fact, Jokowi is surrounded by vestiges of the New Order – the fact that vice-president-elect Jusuf Kalla is a former chairman of Golkar has already been mentioned. In particular, Jokowi enjoys the support of prominent Suharto-era generals Hendropriyono, Wiranto, and Luhut Panjaitan (Jokowi’s business partner). It cannot be assumed that any of these generals truly believe in Jokowi’s message of reform and, in his words, a “mental revolution.” More likely they just wanted to end up on the winning team. It must be assumed, however, that they will claim a reward for their support in the form of specific policy jobs and policy measures.

Alongside these political impediments are many structural ones that bedeviled his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Foremost among these is the budget, which is burdened by massive fuel subsidies. Other deeply rooted impediments are the country’s slow-to-modernize infrastructure and underperforming education system. Indonesia’s economic growth for most of the past ten years has relied on high prices for its natural resource exports. Commodity prices are now trending down, new resources are not being developed as quickly as old ones are being depleted, and nationalist sentiment has had a depressing impact on new investment in the resource sector.

Indonesian Foreign Policy and the United States

The Obama Administration has had a love affair with Indonesia related to its position as the world’s fourth most populous country and the biggest Muslim-majority democracy, as well as to the childhood years Obama spent in Jakarta. Having denied a visa to Prabowo because of the human rights violations associated with his record as an Army general, the Administration is visibly relieved that Jokowi won the election. It has broader reasons for being elated. While there is no basis for believing that Jokowi will seek a closer relationship with the United States, he gives every indication of being sympathetic to the U.S. position on a number of issues high on the U.S. foreign policy agenda. Above all, these issues include human rights and democratic governance. At the same time, it must be recognized that Jokowi is a novice in foreign affairs. Given the international profile that he will inherit from Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, under whose watch Indonesia became a G-20 member, Jokowi will have to adapt his hitherto provincial outlook in order to further Indonesia’s aspirations as an emerging power and to make it relevant to issues as diverse as climate change, the Gaza conflict, and reform of international financial institutions.

The relationship that develops between Indonesia and its regional partners is harder to predict. It is conceivable, for example, that China would have preferred to see Prabowo as Indonesia’s next president. Relations with Malaysia will be on a firm footing because of the shared kindred Bugis lineage between Jusuf Kalla (and by extension, Jokowi) and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak. (Still an important cultural factor in the Indo-Malay world, the Bugis are an ethnic group that traces its roots to the Indonesian island of Sulawesi; they speak a different language from the Indonesian or Malay lingua franca, and are traditionally known as master seafarers.) Relations with Singapore can be expected to be generally stable as well.

It remains to be seen if, for reasons cited above, Indonesia will continue to play an activist role in ASEAN. Under his predecessor, Indonesia’s foreign policy was deftly handled by an effective foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, and a competent team of diplomats. Indonesia’s foreign policy establishment will undoubtedly be critical to provide much-needed support and advice to their new president, who has barely a decade worth of municipal experience under his belt.

Democracy in Indonesia has indeed taken yet another step forward with the election of Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to the Indonesian presidency. As Jokowi prepares to take the oath of office, he must quickly take his mind off the goodwill which propelled him to victory in order to focus decisively on the very high expectations and very steep challenges ahead.


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