As Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran spend what may be their final hours on the prison island of Nusa Kambangan, there is anguished confusion in their home country as to how an Indonesian president elected on a platform of reform could sentence so many to their deaths for so little. Ensuing efforts to explain President Joko Widodo's actions have been incomplete, attributing a malevolence to Jokowi for which there is little evidence.

The broader political context suggests instead that Jokowi is motivated by the zeal of a reformer, albeit one with a very different sense than most Australians of what constitutes reform.

The first key to understanding the presidency of Jokowi is to grasp the degree to which he has sought to define himself in opposition to his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. President Jokowi has sought to be firmer, more focused, and faster.

Many Indonesians criticised Yudhoyono for pursuing a role as an international statesman, which they argued led him to curry favour by seeking accommodation with foreign powers like Australia. He was faulted for attending too many summits in an effort to build up his reputation while doing too little on behalf of Indonesian migrant workers facing difficult working conditions overseas.

In contrast, President Jokowi is a reluctant attendee at international summits, and has made consular service to Indonesian migrant workers a top priority. He pledged in the presidential campaign last year to better defend Indonesia's dignity, particularly in the case of Australia, which he singled out as a repeat offender.

There was a sense among many Indonesians that under Yudhoyono's hands-off leadership, the state had become weaker – that corruption had flourished, drug use had soared, and laws had gone unenforced due to political considerations. By contrast, Jokowi promised in his election manifesto to 'reject the weak state' and in doing so extirpate corruption, drug trafficking, illegal fishing, and other scourges. 

While SBY appeared to many Indonesians to be peragu, a vacillator, Jokowi has always appeared to be a man of action. He has sped up infrastructure projects, sped up subsidy reform, and – tragically – sped up executions.

While capital punishment is anathema to most Australians, it enjoys broad support in Indonesia, and the decision to carry out death sentences issued over the last decade represents for most Indonesians a return to the regular order under a president who is unafraid to enforce Indonesian laws even when placed under intense pressure to offer foreigners special dispensation. To most Indonesians, this is reform.

The second key to understanding Indonesian politics today is that Jokowi is in a weaker political position than any Indonesian leader since 2001. With limited support among the elites of Indonesia's political parties, including his own, he must play them off each other if he is to have any hope of enacting a portion of his reform agenda.

In the process, he has compromised, doling out sinecures and largesse in violation of his anti-corruption pledges. He labours under the constant possibility of an elite plot to unseat him, if he would only give his detractors sufficient excuse to move against him.

Some journalists and analysts have argued that, from his weak position, a desperate Jokowi has seized upon the executions of foreigners as one area where he can project strength and score political points. Yet there is little evidence for such an extraordinary accusation. Jokowi's administration began to process the death warrants in November of last year and Jokowi signed the death warrants at the end of December, before a major scandal hit his Administration in the first week of January.

In other words, Jokowi was still on his honeymoon when he committed himself to his current course. It is possible that the politics of Jokowi's situation have held him to that course since then, but such an argument seems to confuse correlation with causation. All indications are that Jokowi has concluded that the executions are just.

It is a conclusion with which I and all opponents of capital punishment profoundly disagree. But as the Australian people and their Government contemplate the appropriate response to the execution of their fellow citizens by the Indonesian state, it is important that we accurately portray the context and mindset in which that decision has been taken.

Photo by Flickr user Kreshna Aditya 2012.