Commentary | 14 July 2014

Jokowi’s honest politics will make him vulnerable

Jokowi’s honest politics will make him vulnerable

Aaron Connelly

The Australian

14 July 2014

Please click here for full online text.

  • Aaron L Connelly

Jokowi’s honest politics will make him vulnerable

Aaron Connelly

The Australian

14 July 2014

Please click here for full online text.

  • Aaron L Connelly

Executive Summary

YOU wouldn’t know it by his calm, humble demeanour, but Indon­esia’s next president is a disruptive figure.

Never before has Indonesia’s president come from outside the Jakarta elite, a small group of leaders who have known each other’s families for decades.

Never before has Indonesia elected a president with such limit­ed support from party mach­inery.

Never before have so many Indonesians placed so much hope in a single individual to change the way their politics works.

Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo received more votes last week than his opponent, retired general Prabowo Subianto, according to Quick Counts conducted by independent institutions immediately following the vote. Prabowo has refused to concede until the official tally is announced, which is expected by July 22.

He could then challenge the result in the Constitutional Court, which would rule by late August.

But, barring any subversion of the electoral or judicial process, Jokowi — as the Jakarta Governor is known throughout Indon­esia — should be sworn in as the seventh president of the republic on October 20.

The race between Jokowi and Prabowo turned primarily on a difference in style between the two candidates.

As Mayor of Solo and Governor of Jakarta, Jokowi spent hours each day making unannounced visits to government offices to ensure bureaucrats were hard at work, and to poorer neighbourhoods to meet with constituents.

Prabowo’s campaign style was far more aloof: he preferred to review supporters lining parade routes and stadiums from an open jeep, or on horseback, in carefully choreographed displays of pageantry.

Those differences in style also hinted at different views of Indon­esian democracy, as both candidates tapped into dissatisfaction with incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose cabinets have been plagued by corruption and inefficiency.

Prabowo promised to deliver more effective government by ruling with a firmer hand. He quietly signalled a desire to return to Indon­esia’s original 1945 constitution, which would have undone the democratic reforms enacted after the fall of Suharto, and empowered the president over the legislature and courts.

But he made clear as he put togeth­er his coalition to contest the presidency that he would still trade public offices in return for political and financial support, the same practice that led to a stream of corruption allegations against SBY’s government.

Jokowi pledged to work within Indonesia’s current constitution and respect democracy, and promised to never trade seats in his cabinet or to reward rent-seeking in exchange for political support. His victory thus holds out the promise of a cleaner government, and dispatches the real risk of a return­ to autocracy in Indonesia.

It preserves the influence of checks and balances on the president’s power, such as the legislature, the judiciary and a large number of political parties.

Yet, ironically, it is those very democratic institutions which are likely to stymie Jokowi’s plans for reform and leave his supporters disappointed.

Indonesia’s legislature is run by a collection of small parties, which have often thwarted any efforts by the president to institute reforms that threaten the business interests that back the parties. To cite just one example, when SBY put in place a reformist finance minister determined to straighten out Indon­esia’s tax agency — so riddled with corruption that Indon­esia only collects about 50 per cent of tax liabilities — the legislature threatened her with impeachment, leading her to resign.

Jokowi can expect his reformers to receive even greater abuse because, unlike SBY, he has refused to offer patronage in return for legislative support.

We are likely to see these dynamics begin to play out as Jokowi tackles the economic problems left to him by his predecessor.

Indonesia spends more than 20 per cent of its budget on petrol subsidies. The subsidies remain popular, but prevent greater spending on infrastructure that Indonesia desperately needs to reheat its cooling economy.

Jokowi has pledged to reduce spending on subsidies, but the legislature has frequently thwarted such moves in the past.

Objections could even come from his own party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, whose caucus in the legislature is run by Puan Maharani, the daughter of party chairwoman Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Jokowi’s rise diminished Puan’s stature within the party, and Puan only reluctantly supported his presidential ambitions.

Last year, her caucus staged a walkout over a modest decrease in the subsidies. Though they are unlikely to do so again, they could thwart action in more subtle ways.

Jokowi argues that he can overcome all these obstacles through better communication with leaders in the legislature.

But precisely because his brand of politics threatens to make their own obsolete, they are unlikely to be very interested in what he has to say.

Aaron L. Connelly is a research fellow in the East Asia Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney