Book Review: Ben Bland, Man of Contradictions: Joko Widodo and the struggle to remake Indonesia (Penguin, Lowy Institute, 2020)

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, a man once dubbed “a new hope” for democracy, has instead presided over a period of democratic stagnation and regression, according to many scholars of Indonesia. Ben Bland’s new Lowy Institute Paper Man of Contradictions attempts to unpack how the affable everyman persona of “Jokowi” has given way to a more calculating, transactional leader, by bringing together contemporary academic debates and the author’s own insights into Jokowi’s Indonesia. The result is a compact, compelling narrative that serves as an accessible entry-point for policy makers and observers to understand Jokowi’s rise from small town mayor to president of the world’s largest Muslim country.

Bland’s account of Jokowi’s authoritarian turn is simple but not necessarily simplistic. It goes beyond looking just at Jokowi’s leadership style by also considering underlying structural causes, such as what he calls “the original sin of reformasi”.

“The price of a mostly smooth and peaceful transition”, Bland writes, “has been to leave Suharto-era figures and institutions with a seat at the table”.

Indeed, as Edward Aspinall argued back in 2010, the irony of Indonesia’s successful democratic transition was that it rested upon buy-in from authoritarian spoilers, and built anti-democratic potential into the new system. Bland’s knack for engaging storytelling and memorable turns of phrase helps summarise these complex themes.

The key to understanding Jokowi’s inconsistencies, Bland argues, “lies in a heavy dose of realism about the nature of both Indonesia and the man”. Jokowi turned out not to be “the democratic reformer … but neither is he some sort of authoritarian wolf in sheep’s clothing. Rather, he has been shaped by the winds that swirl around him”. The massive Islamist mobilisation that brought down his close ally, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (known as Ahok), in 2016 is particularly identified as a determining factor that “blew him off course”. Bland rightly notes that the anti-Ahok mobilisation prompted Jokowi’s “reaching for the guide ropes of authoritarian rule” by bolstering the contingent of Suharto-era military figures in his cabinet.

Demonstrations brought down former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok (Agoes Rudianto/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

 

But Bland pulls up short of a deeper examination of how rising Islamism also directly led to Jokowi taking an Islamic turn. Rather than being flung helplessly left and right by the growing tide of sectarian polarisation, Jokowi managed to harness and turn it on his opponents.

As his rival presidential candidate (now Defence Minister) Prabowo Subianto courted hardcore Islamist groups in the run-up to last year’s election, Jokowi recast his image from simple everyman to pious vanguard of Islamic moderatism. Key to this shift in strategy was his close alliance with Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the country’s largest Islamic organisation, which not only delivered important Muslim votes during the election constituencies but is now also supporting his efforts to further suppress Islamist opposition in his second term.

Jokowi continues to walk a tightrope between his desire for voluminous, “no-strings-attached” investment from Beijing and relatively high domestic suspicion of Chinese economic dominance.

As a political biography, Bland’s book could have further unpacked the president’s religious and ideological background to understand how it might be informing his engagement with political Islam. If Jokowi co-opted aspects of political Islam to mitigate the Islamist threat to his position, as Bland suggests, why didn’t he opt for the all-inclusive accommodation of his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono? Instead Jokowi selectively extended patronage to conservative figures from the mainstream NU, most notably Ma’ruf Amin, while repressing more hardcore Islamist groups such as Hizbut Tahrir.

Bland holds that Jokowi is part of the abangan (nominal Muslim) class who strategically projects himself to foreign leaders as champion of moderate Islam. However, he does not give more insights into Jokowi’s personal religious and ideological inclinations. It thus remains unclear whether Jokowi’s heavy-handed policy in combating radical Islam was motivated solely by political calculations or if his personal convictions also played a part.

The chapter on foreign policy is thinner than perhaps many had anticipated. Devoting significant space to Indonesia’s faltered maritime diplomacy and multilateral engagements, Bland misses opportunities to delve deeper into Indonesia’s most complex yet important bilateral relationships, that with China. Jokowi continues to walk a tightrope between his desire for voluminous, “no-strings-attached” investment from Beijing and relatively high domestic suspicion of Chinese economic dominance – driven in large part by Islamist opponents but also shared by others within the Muslim community.

The key to understanding this trade-off may lie in Jokowi’s more visible “Islamic diplomacy” in recent years. Though some have argued this Islamic diplomacy is driven by purely domestic concerns, there are still curious contradictions that are worth unpacking. The book unfortunately skips over discussion of the stark contrast between Indonesia’s silence on the Uighur issue and its increasingly vocal stance on Palestine, its surprisingly deep engagement in the Afghan peace process, or its expressed concerns over anti-Muslim violence in India.

Also missing is the Jokowi administration’s active role in the global campaign for “Archipelago Islam (Islam Nusantara)”, which is often feted by Western diplomats eager to hold the country up as a beacon of moderate Islam. A better understanding of when and why Jokowi has sought to employ moderate Muslim diplomacy and engage on the plight of Muslims elsewhere in the world could shed further light on his foreign policy calculus.

Overall, the book provides a concise summary of Jokowi’s political ascendancy and Indonesia’s second experiment with democracy. A deeper investigation into the uneven influence of religion on Jokowi’s governing decisions, including on foreign policy would help bring Indonesia’s “man of contradictions” into greater focus.