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Indonesia Elections and the Jokowi Presidency

Indonesian President-elect Joko Widodo smiles after inauguration rehearsal on October, 2014
Photo: Getty Images/Oscar Siagian
Indonesian President-elect Joko Widodo smiles after inauguration rehearsal on October, 2014

OVERVIEW

On 20 October 2014, Joko Widodo, better known as Jokowi, was inaugurated as the seventh president of Indonesia. The ceremony completed the first peaceful transfer of power between two popularly elected leaders in the world’s third-largest democracy. Jokowi, whose term runs until 2019, succeeds Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, or SBY, who governed for ten years.

President Jokowi sees himself as a domestic reformer rather than an international statesman in the mould of SBY, and so will likely delegate many decisions on key foreign policy issues to his advisers. In a new report, the Lowy Institute’s Aaron L. Connelly previews Jokowi’s approach to foreign affairs, and profiles several of his advisers.

 

The Jokowi Phenomenon and the Prabowo surge

Jokowi defeated retired Lt. Gen. Prabowo Subianto by 6.3% in the presidential election on 9 July 2014. Prabowo challenged the result – far closer than the winning margins in two previous polls in 2004 and 2009 – before the General Elections Commission and the Constitutional Court, but both institutions unanimously ruled that Jokowi had won.

Jokowi and Prabowo are a study in contrasts. Jokowi is a middle-class furniture entrepreneur who served seven years as mayor of the mid-sized city of Surakarta in Central Java, where he built a consensus for a series of good government reforms that attracted nationwide attention. Enthusiasm for his approach in Surakarta propelled him to an upset victory in the capital Jakarta, 500km away, in an election there in 2012. In March 2014, just 18 months after taking the helm in Jakarta and with a wide lead in every opinion poll, former President Megawati Sukarnoputri named Jokowi the presidential candidate of her party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). Yet despite his popularity, the leadership of PDI-P was slow to embrace Jokowi, seeing him as an outsider. As a result, money was slow to flow to Jokowi's campaign, and it struggled to get organized.

After a month of negotiations, Jokowi and a rival, retired Lt. General Prabowo Subianto, formed coalitions to back their runs for president. Prabowo leads the Greater Indonesia Movement, or Gerindra, a well-funded party backed by his tycoon brother that has primarily been a vehicle for his presidential ambitions. Prabowo is a Suharto Era figure who has staged a remarkable political comeback after his dismissal from the military in 1998 following the kidnapping of student activists at the end of Suharto’s rule, for which a military board found him responsible. His human rights record prompts mixed reactions in Indonesia. Polls show women in particular found it troubling; but others say they see him as the strong, tough leader Indonesia's noisy democracy requires.

Prabowo staged a further comeback in the late stages of the race, partly a credit both to his extraordinarily well-funded and well-organised campaign. But perhaps more important was a shadowy smear campaign against Jokowi that sought to convince Indonesians that Jokowi was a Christian of Chinese descent whose real name was Herbertus Joko Widodo. (The smears are false; he is a Javanese Muslim). The smears spread rapidly, and required a significant door-to-door effort in the countryside to correct the record.

With polls showing Prabowo surging from a distant second to within a couple of percentage points against Jokowi by late June, Jokowi’s campaign began to get its act together. Enthusastic young volunteers unassociated with any party filled the void left by lukewarm PDI-P support. He capped a successful campaign swing through Java with a rock concert that thrilled young Indonesians, and a solid debate performance. Then, as cameras rolled, he flew to Saudi Arabia to go on a minor pilgrimage, to further beat back the smears. On election day, he and his running mate, Jusuf Kalla, won by over 8 million votes.

 

Coalition politics and the Cabinet

Jokowi’s victory represents a new path for political advancement in Indonesia. Rather than working his way up the military or political party hierarchy, as his six predecessors did, Jokowi owes his ascent to a record of success in finishing projects and cleaning up government at the municipal level. During the campaign, he promised to take this approach to the national level, appointing professionals to his Cabinet, rather than naming party leaders to posts to secure their members' loyalty in the legislature. Yet precisely because Jokowi presents such a threat to business as usual, the old guard in Jakarta have coalesced in opposition to Jokowi.

The coalition supporting Jokowi’s erstwhile opponent, Prabowo Subianto, holds a tenuous majority in the Indonesian legislature. Its leaders have pledged to obstruct Jokowi’s reform agenda, have sought to prevent Jokowi’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) from controlling key legislative posts, and have threatened inquiries into allegations of election fraud and corruption during his tenure as governor of Jakarta. There is little evidence for the allegations, but the opposition could use the charges to quickly bog down Jokowi’s presidency.

Jokowi's first Cabinet revealed little willingness to compromise with the Prabowo-led opposition by appointing its leaders to his Cabinet, a move that might have mollified them to some degree. The Cabinet does, however, include a number of leaders of political parties in his coalition, many with questionable reputations, which has disappointed the volunteers who carried his campaign to victory. 

 

What the Lowy Institute does

The Lowy Institute has provided in-depth analysis on Indonesian politics and foreign policy since 2003. In the lead up to the 2014 Indonesian Presidential election,  Aaron L. Connelly, Research Fellow the East Asia Program, provided ongoing analysis on Indonesia's electoral processes, in addition to regular Indonesia commentary by Catriona Croft-Cusworth on The Interpreter.