With Friends Like These

Indonesia's ambitious new president has plenty of problems. But the biggest headache may come from his own allies.

457931832 cropped

Just over 100 days ago, 53-year-old Joko Widodo — known as Jokowi — was inaugurated as Indonesia’s seventh president. He had earned national prominence as the first directly elected mayor of his birthplace, the city of Surakarta, and then as governor of Jakarta, the country’s capital and largest city. The reforms he implemented in these positions were important, but it was his easy manner and accessibility, as well as his relatable middle-class background, that won him public approval. Jokowi had worked his way through high school and university before building his family’s furniture business. In contrast to the slow and indecisive outgoing President Yudhoyono, Jokowi was plucky and energetic, surviving both a constitutional challenge to his victory and specious allegations of corruption.

Most of all, for many voters, the new president represented a break from the past. He is Indonesia’s first leader with no links to the military or to the Suharto dictatorship. By contrast, the man he defeated in the presidential race, Prabowo Subianto, is a former general who married one of President Suharto’s daughters and comes from a family with worldwide business interests. But Jokowi’s first few months in office have tested his reputation for independence. His reformer credentials are now at stake as he battles entrenched interests within the PDI-P, the party that endorsed him as its 2014 presidential candidate.

Jokowi promised much. He had run on an ambitious agenda of economic and bureaucratic reform, vowing to cut fuel subsidies that drain one-fifth of the national budget, improve the civil service, tackle corruption, fix transportation and infrastructure, boost manufacturing, and achieve a growth rate of 7 percent. Thus far, his achievements have been considerable. He survived an initial test: Protests flared after he slashed fuel subsidies in November, and his popularity dropped significantly in the days after the announcement. But the policy was well-timed, as global fall in oil prices cushioned Indonesians from a rise in fuel costs and muted criticism. Jokowi has also earned admiration for his response to the December Air Asia crash, and has proven decisive in defending Indonesia’s territorial waters. His signature health and education smart cards, tried and tested during his tenure in Surakarta and Jakarta, are projected to provide free health care and up to 12 years of education to tens of millions of poor Indonesians.

These achievements are impressive, particularly considering that Jokowi heads a minority government and has had to battle a powerful opposition coalition in parliament. But even as he has skillfully navigated these murky waters, some of the strongest resistance has actually come from within his own party, the PDI-P. Its chair, Megawati Sukarnoputri, is the daughter of Indonesia’s first president. A former head of state herself, she dithered for several months before backing Jokowi’s candidacy in March 2014. It was an extraordinary delay, seen by some to have nearly cost him the election.

Now that he has her backing, Jokowi must accommodate the party’s interests. After promising a lean cabinet of experts during the election campaign, he caved to pressure and appointed not only a number of politicians from the PDI-P and coalition partners, but also Megawati’s daughter Puan Maharani. His pick for attorney-general of a politician from a party allied with the PDI-P has also attracted criticism from Indonesia Corruption Watch and other organizations.

In Surakarta and Jakarta, Jokowi succeeded in cultivating the image that he had the public’s best interest at heart, even if politics and his party demanded otherwise. Now as president, he is seen to bowing to pressure from Megawati. There are reasons for him to do so. She heads the largest party in Jokowi’s coalition, has supported his entire career, and begrudgingly appointed him presidential nominee. And with an unpredictable opposition, Jokowi needs strong politicians in the legislature to support his programs.

The president may have tripped with his latest balancing act, however. In order to convince Megawati to endorse his ally, former military man Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, to a new chief-of-staff position, he has had to nominate a Megawati loyalist, Budi Gunawan, as national police chief.

This nomination has run into serious trouble. Indonesia’s trusted anti-corruption commission, the KPK, has named Gunawan as a graft suspect. In retaliation, police dug up charges against KPK commissioners and arrested one. Activists and the public are riled up over the battle, labeled as an uneven one “between a gecko and crocodile.” In a country that has long been at the bottom one-third of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, the national police, in particular, do not enjoy much trust. Indonesia Corruption Watch insists that police actions against the KPK were specifically meant to prevent the agency from performing its functions. Jokowi’s approval ratings have plummeted yet again.

The outcry has forced Jokowi to suspend his police chief appointment and to create a commission of prominent public figures to offer a way out of the impasse. The commission has advised him not to appoint Gunawan. For now, Jokowi is still weighing his decision. Going ahead with the appointment threatens his public support and his clean reputation, but retreating could invite the ire of his most powerful political patron.

With trust from all sides waning fast, Jokowi may be seeking support from an unlikely source: the opposition. The Red and White Coalition of Prabowo — Jokowi’s erstwhile challenger for the presidency – has a majority in the current legislature, and has made life difficult for the president in the past. In October, its lawmakers leveraged a change in parliamentary procedures to take control of the new legislature, preventing it from fulfilling even basic functions in its first term. Jokowi has since resolved the dispute to share power.

Despite this history, Jokowi met with Prabowo and former president B.J. Habibie some days back. The outcomes from these meetings are unclear, but they indicate that Jokowi may be starting to push back against Megawati by exploring alternative coalition options.

Even if he emerges unscathed from the current crisis, Jokowi is certain to face more trouble as he flexes his political muscles. But a look into the not-too-distant past may offer guidance for the beleaguered president. As mayor and then governor, Jokowi’s clean image kept public opinion firmly on his side and won him national acclaim. It also led him to the presidency. Jokowi will have to preserve that reputation if he wants to advance bolder and riskier reforms. For now, the public would like to see him stand firm against the grubby realities of Indonesian politics. As one Twitter post read, “President Jokowi just needs to say no.”


Rushda Majeed is a researcher and consultant focused on institutional and policy reform. Twitter: @RushdaMajeed