External Affairs

Indonesians are Discovering the Limits of Populism

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File photo of Indonesian President Jokowi (Credit: Provincial Government of Jakarta)

File photo of Indonesian President Jokowi (Credit: Provincial Government of Jakarta)

Jakarta: The election last year of Joko Widodo, a former small-time furniture salesman, as President of Indonesia was a watershed for the archipelago. His humble origins, clean reputation, and effective track record in leading city governments combined to make Jokowi—as the President is universally known—wildly popular at home, even as he was heralded as an agent of much-needed change by foreign analysts. His victory, against the odds, over rival Prabowo Subianto, a former general thoroughly entrenched in established institutional power structures, signalled a fresh start.

Hopes were high that southeast Asia’s largest economy would finally live up to its potential, with Jokowi expected to fix creaky infrastructure, reign in corruption, attract foreign investment, champion human rights and raise Indonesia’s diplomatic profile.


But given the depth and range of the country’s challenges, the optimism sparked by Jokowi’s victory arguably set him up to fail. Seven months after his inauguration, the exuberance of Jokowi’s supporters is fast waning. The economy has only grown by 4.7% in the first quarter compared with a year ago, the slowest pace since 2009. And although the President has made rhetorical overtures to foreign investors indicating that Indonesia is open for business, many of his policies so far have been protectionist in intent and effect.

His administration has, for example, tightened the enforcement of laws requiring that the components of smartphones be produced domestically. The list of industries barred to foreign investors has not been slimmed down. The ban on exporting unprocessed mineral ore imposed by the former administration remains in place although Jokowi had hinted he would lift it. (Exports of bauxite collapsed from 55 million to 500,000 tonnes within a year following the ban). Moreover, foreign workers are finding it increasingly difficult to get visas with a tightening of immigration rules.

Jokowi has also disappointed human rights activists and many foreign governments with his hard-line stance on the death penalty. In the 2014 election it was Jokowi’s opponent, Prabowo, who promised to rule Indonesia with an iron hand. Jokowi himself had projected a more gentle and humane image. Free of the taint of human rights abuses under the Suharto era that many of Indonesia’s political elites, including Prabowo, still suffer from, Jokowi was seen as the liberal face of Indonesia’s young democracy.

Instead the Indonesian President has made global headline news for going ahead with narcotics-related executions despite desperate diplomatic appeals, and condemnations by rights groups. Prior to Jokowi coming to power, Indonesia had rarely applied the death penalty for drug smuggling. Over the 15 years before he took office, seven foreigners, and no Indonesians, were put to death on narcotics charges. But under him, in the past few months alone, 12 foreigners have been executed for drug smuggling, along with two Indonesians.

The executions have garnered negative international publicity. Australia withdrew its ambassador after the latest round (Brazil had also withdrawn its ambassador earlier in January). But they have been popular at home with the President framing them as a matter of national pride and sovereignty. Polls indicate that a large majority of Indonesians approve of the government’s decision. The executions allowed Jokowi to appear tough. Significantly, they could be ordered by executive fiat alone, without the need for parliamentary approval.

Political challenges

The Indonesian President has been squeezed of room to manoeuvre ever since his election. Not only does he head a minority coalition in the national parliament, but as an outsider to the political establishment, it is difficult for him strike the kind of deals he needed to achieve any of his policy objectives.

Perhaps his greatest challenge is that he lacks the support of his own party, the PDIP. The PDIP is headed by former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Indonesia’s first President, Sukarno, who is loath to cede power to a man whom she considers an underling. Sukarnoputri nominated Jokowi as the party’s presidential candidate with reluctance, after it became clear that she had no hope of winning an election herself. But she loses no opportunity to assert her authority over the President.

Jokowi spent more than a month earlier this year embroiled in a controversy over the appointment of a tainted police chief, an affair that has hurt his anti-corruption credentials and threatened to expose him as a lame duck. The President nominated Budi Gunawan, a powerful general, as police chief in January, a move widely believed to be on the behest of Sukarnoputri. Gunawan was a former security aide to Sukarnoputri and the two are known to be close.

But three days after his nomination, Gunawan was named a suspect in a corruption probe by the KPK, Indonesia’s anti-corruption agency. The police then arrested one of the KPK’s five commissioners, on perjury allegations relating to a five year-old case, resulting in a prolonged showdown between the anti-graft agency and the police.

In the process, Jokowi’s reputation took a battering. Following the corruption allegations the President suspended Gunawan’s nomination but did not drop it altogether for over a month. He was eventually installed as deputy chief of police. The Gunawan affair has alienated both popular opinion, which saw Jokowi as buckling to corrupt elite pressures, as well as many of the political elite who wanted him to push through the appointment.

At the moment of his election it was clear that Jokowi had been dealt a tough hand of cards politically. As the head of a minority coalition in parliament with little backing from even his own party, the President’s political strength derived almost wholly from his strong grass-roots support. The Gunawan case cost him some of this, although the executions have been popular.

Make in Indonesia

Ultimately however, any approval resulting from the executions is only fleeting. To retain the support of the people it is economic growth that Jokowi will need to deliver. The President has announced plans to rebalance Indonesia’s economy away from its current dependence on commodities exports to manufacturing. In 2013 manufacturing’s share of GDP was only 24% (down from 29% in 2001). In order to achieve this goal, tackling the archipelago’s inadequate infrastructure will be crucial to drive down the cost of logistics. Companies spend twice as much on logistics in Indonesia than those in neighbouring Malaysia.

Earlier this year the President was able to pass a forward-looking budget where using savings from the cutting of fuel subsidies last November, the budget for infrastructure was increased by 53%—the biggest year-on-year increase in Indonesia’s history. But spending has so far been stalled with less than 2 percent of the 2015 infrastructure budget being utilised by April of this year.

Bureaucratic wrangling, and land acquisition issues go some way in explaining these delays. Companies complain that there is confusion about whom to approach within the government for decisions. Some allege that Jokowi’s inexperience at the national level (the President’s previous political resume comprised a term and a half as mayor of Solo, a mid-sized city, and less than two years as governor of Jakarta) is exacerbated by his circle of advisors, most of whom are also lacking in political clout and experience.

Seven months into a term is too short for decisive judgments. Many of Jokowi’s ideas are praiseworthy. Cutting subsidies to boost spending on infrastructure, health, and education cannot be faulted. The President’s vision of Indonesia developing its long-neglected maritime capabilities is also eminently sensible for an archipelagic nation.

The wider stakes

Jokowi’s personality is not assertive, but in a country like Indonesia where consensus building amongst and across diverse political factions is unavoidable this is not necessarily a negative trait. It is possible that Jokowi may yet grow into his leadership role. But he does not have the luxury of much more time

The election of Jokowi had huge symbolic significance not only for Indonesia, but the region. It had indicated the possibility of renewal via the democratic process even in large, poor, not particularly well-educated countries. It was a refutation of China’s insistence that authoritarianism is the only viable path for populous, poor nations, and represented hope for other emerging democracies, such as Myanmar.

It is unreasonable to expect the Indonesian President to magically square the many circles that confound his country. But, unless Jokowi is able to demonstrate the ability to translate at least some of his rhetoric into action relatively soon, his election may go down in history as important only for its symbolism. And the next time round Indonesians may decide that symbolism alone is not enough. His failure would be a global disappointment.

(Pallavi Aiyar is a Jakarta-based journalist and writer)








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