Analysis

Has Joko Widodo’s Power Peaked in Indonesia?

The country’s future hinges on how Jokowi navigates his final years as president.

By , the director of the Southeast Asia program at the Lowy Institute.
A mural depicts Indonesian President Joko Widodo with the network error message “404: Not found” covering his eyes.
A mural depicts Indonesian President Joko Widodo with the network error message “404: Not found” covering his eyes in Tangerang, Banten, on Aug. 12, prior to its removal. The mural prompted a police investigation and a search for its artist. Fajrin Raharjo/AFP via Getty Images

After Joko Widodo was elected president of Indonesia in 2014, I sat down with him to discuss rumors that opposition parties, which then had a majority in parliament, might try to impeach him as soon as he took office. Jokowi, as he is known, laughed off the idea, insisting that even though he was new to national politics, he would be able to bring his opponents around.

Seven years later, it is remarkable how this former furniture businessman and city mayor has consolidated power. Using his outsider status to surge to the top of Indonesian politics, Jokowi has become the consummate elite politician.

Since he was reelected with an increased margin of victory in 2019, he has drawn both his presidential and vice presidential opponents into his cabinet, with Prabowo Subianto serving as defense minister and Sandiaga Uno as tourism minister. He has also created a nascent political dynasty, with his son and son-in-law elected as mayors of the important cities of Solo and Medan, respectively.

After Joko Widodo was elected president of Indonesia in 2014, I sat down with him to discuss rumors that opposition parties, which then had a majority in parliament, might try to impeach him as soon as he took office. Jokowi, as he is known, laughed off the idea, insisting that even though he was new to national politics, he would be able to bring his opponents around.

Seven years later, it is remarkable how this former furniture businessman and city mayor has consolidated power. Using his outsider status to surge to the top of Indonesian politics, Jokowi has become the consummate elite politician.

Since he was reelected with an increased margin of victory in 2019, he has drawn both his presidential and vice presidential opponents into his cabinet, with Prabowo Subianto serving as defense minister and Sandiaga Uno as tourism minister. He has also created a nascent political dynasty, with his son and son-in-law elected as mayors of the important cities of Solo and Medan, respectively.

In late August, Jokowi pulled another political party, the National Mandate Party, into his ever-expanding coalition, which now controls 82 percent of the 575 seats in the House of Representatives. That move has added to speculation that Jokowi’s supporters are seeking constitutional changes to allow him to stand for a third term or extend his existing term.

Jokowi has denied having any intention to prolong his stay in the presidential palace. If he were to do so, it would compound concerns that the quality of Indonesia’s hard-won democracy has suffered on his watch and likely spark renewed student protests.

The president’s successful coalition-building has been accompanied by a steady erosion of the powers of the much-admired Corruption Eradication Commission, long the bane of the country’s notoriously graft-ridden political parties. Government critics have increasingly been targeted by the police using a range of ambiguous laws that govern hate speech and online behavior. And, surrounded by a praetorian guard of former generals in his cabinet, Jokowi has governed with an increasingly uncompromising stance.

Despite growing public concern about these pressures on civil liberties, Jokowi remains incredibly popular with Indonesian voters. Even the president’s failure to enunciate a consistent and effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has ravaged Indonesia in recent months, has barely dented his standing with the public.

More than 142,000 Indonesians have died of COVID-19, according to official data, but epidemiologists believe this is a dramatic undercount given how limited Indonesia’s testing capacity has been. Yet Indonesians seem largely forgiving of the government’s pandemic missteps.

But, as fund managers routinely warn their clients, past performance is not necessarily indicative of future returns. With the next presidential and parliamentary elections in 2024 fast approaching, two fundamental questions will determine Indonesia’s immediate trajectory: Has Jokowi’s power peaked? And, if so, what will he do with the power he does have left before it ebbs away completely?

Much hinges on the answers. With his uniquely down-to-earth style, Jokowi has been one of Asia’s most refreshing leaders of recent years. Obsessed with infrastructure, Jokowi has accelerated the construction of dozens of much-needed highways, ports, and airports, with traffic-clogged Jakarta getting the country’s first-ever subway line in 2019. But even before COVID-19 struck, he was struggling to deliver on his promises of high economic growth, pro-business reform, and improved social welfare.

Every year, around 3 million young Indonesians enter the workforce. But Indonesia is not creating enough quality jobs to keep pace, so many end up working in the informal sector as drivers or food hawkers with limited job security and few opportunities for training.

How Jokowi navigates Indonesia’s route out of the pandemic will shape the pathway of the world’s third most populous democracy, at home and abroad, for years to come.

When I was researching Man of Contradictions, the first English-language political biography of Jokowi, one of the president’s allies told me that one of Jokowi’s greatest strengths was that “people keep underestimating him.” It’s hard to argue that is the case anymore.

Presuming that the rumored bid to change the constitution fails (or fails to materialize), Jokowi is likely to face the same lame-duck challenge as all term-limited presidents in democratic systems. And he will increasingly struggle to exert his authority as the jockeying to replace him intensifies ahead of a 2023 deadline to form coalitions to nominate presidential candidates.

Unlike his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Jokowi has no party of his own to give him a horse in the presidential coalition race. Instead, he seems determined to stay on good terms with as many of his possible successors as he can.

This approach may help ensure a smooth post-presidential career for Jokowi and protect the fortunes of his son and son-in-law as they set out on their political careers. However, it is unlikely to lead to effective government.

Jokowi built his big-tent coalition by sharing power with different leaders, parties, and tycoons. On paper, it looks strong. In practice, it’s unwieldy because it’s difficult to get things done when you have to satisfy so many people.

Former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson argued that it was better to have troublemakers “inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in.” The problem in contemporary Indonesian politics is that you can bring your political rivals into your tent, but you cannot possibly hope to control the direction in which they urinate, especially when an election is coming.

COVID-19 has also made it much harder for Jokowi to leave a positive legacy in his remaining three years in office. Last year, Indonesia slumped into its first recession since the 1998 Asian financial crisis. This year, the country’s GDP is forecast by the World Bank to grow by 3.7 percent, below the trend of around 5 percent and well behind Jokowi’s plans to hit 7 percent.

More worryingly, millions of Indonesians have lost their jobs or are struggling to make ends meet in the sprawling informal sector, and sluggish vaccination rates mean COVID-19 could be a multiyear health and economic crisis for Indonesia.

The pandemic has also hampered the president’s ability to capitalize on the controversial law to boost investment and job creation he pushed through last year. In his recent state of the nation address, Jokowi said he would not allow the pandemic to hinder the progress of structural economic reforms. But in truth, the president has enacted relatively few impactful reforms beyond the job creation law, some regular tinkering with business licensing rules, and much rhetoric about supporting inclusive growth and human capital.

With the political clock ticking down rapidly toward 2024 and the pandemic still looming large, Jokowi’s government needs an injection of new energy and focus.

It should start by ramping up its vaccination campaign and putting in place plans to secure and distribute enough booster shots for what is likely to be a multiyear pandemic. It also needs to stop downplaying the pandemic and improve the quality of data it collects and distributes so that it can plot a better way forward.

Understandably, Jokowi has been reluctant to use widespread lockdowns because they tend to hit poor Indonesians the hardest. But in the medium term, there is no direct trade-off between health and the economy. Unless Indonesia can find a way to manage the health impacts of COVID-19 through improved vaccination, monitoring, and mitigation campaigns, the pandemic will be a major drag on growth and job creation.

More broadly, Jokowi must push his ministers to focus on imminent policy challenges rather than their future electoral prospects and ensure they work in a more coordinated manner. Since he was elected in 2014, the president has taken an ad hoc, nuts-and-bolts approach to governing, reflecting his prior experience in city government. That will not suffice in these tough times.

Jokowi should abandon his grandiose plan to build a new $32 billion capital city in Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. He should instead focus on more mundane but important tasks such as reforming Indonesia’s woefully inadequate tax system, refinancing the strained health and social assistance systems, and ensuring the job creation law is implemented in a way that makes life easier for investors while protecting labor and environmental rights. And he should reverse the moves to undermine the Corruption Eradication Commission while living up to his claims that he welcomes public criticism and feedback.

Although the 2024 elections are still more than two years away, the jockeying to replace Jokowi is already intensifying. The president must move fast to renew his administration, or the political capital he has so skillfully amassed will wither away before he can spend it. That would be damaging for the legacy of a man who rose from obscurity on a wave of such great promise.

More importantly, it would leave Indonesia poorly disposed to tackle the growing challenges it faces in a world that is becoming more competitive and dangerous.

Ben Bland is the director of the Southeast Asia program at the Lowy Institute. He is the author of Man of Contradictions: Joko Widodo and the Struggle to Remake Indonesia and Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow. He previously spent a decade as a correspondent for the Financial Times in Asia, with postings in Jakarta, Hanoi, and Hong Kong.

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