Monday, October 20, 2014

After spectacular rise, stunning downfall now threatens Jokowi


The inauguration of President Joko Widodo raises hopes of a new beginning for Indonesia. Can he assuage doubts about his political longevity?

The rise of President Joko Widodo ushers in yet another chapter - a significant one - in Indonesia's long and seemingly unending transition to civilian democratic rule. The new president's assumption of office yesterday was accompanied by widespread hope of a change in national fortunes spurred by what Widodo represents - a clear break from his predecessors.

President Jokowi, as he is fondly known, is not from the military, unlike Suharto or Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Though Muslim, neither is he from the Islamic voting bloc - a powerful constituency which only the military had been able to balance. He is also not drawn from the elite that spawned presidents Sukarno, Habibie and Megawati, or the religious class of Abdurahman Wahid. The 53-year-old Jokowi grew up in the slums, became a furniture entrepreneur and then emerged from the "woodwork" to become mayor of Solo in 2005, governor of Jakarta in 2012 and now president of the world's fourth-largest country. Those three gigantic leaps took just nine years. This is as spectacular as it is unprecedented in Indonesian politics.

Rapid rise, rapid opposition?

Jokowi's popularity is down to him being a fresh face, coupled with the simplicity and humility of the wong cilik - the "small man" - with a big mission of reform. These form an exciting prospect for the millions of voters who had grown tired of the usual leadership slate of candidates from the military and political establishments.

However, despite months in the limelight as a competitor for power, President Jokowi's enigma is yet to be fully unpacked: his potential is yet to be discovered or unleashed. Still, his supporters hope he will lead them to a new Indonesia - a developed country with a place in the sun for every Indonesian regardless of background; an archipelagic state of 250 million who see their destiny as a regional maritime power in this part of the world.

It is thus only natural that, having won the presidential election in July on a wave of popular support, Jokowi was widely expected to lead a strong government, with professional talent rallying around him to help tackle the country's key challenges ahead. These include the economy, which has to be kept galloping so that millions of jobs can be created; growing budget deficits due to burgeoning fuel subsidies; underdeveloped infrastructure; notoriously endemic corruption; and a bloated bureaucracy. Jokowi has rightly resolved to bypass the politics of coalition and horse-trading that has weakened previous administrations. But despite having correctly identified the core problem, he does not possess the necessary levers of power to tackle it.

How long before he's gone?

Indeed, after his rapid rise, one question already being asked is, how long can he last as president? That such doubts about his political longevity are emerging so early is troubling. There have even been predictions of him not going past two years. The chief reason is this paradox: while he has won the presidency, he is losing the power game.

Jokowi's supporting parties in the Great Indonesia Coalition (Koalisi Indonesia Hebat, KIH) have only 37 per cent of the seats in the new House of Representatives. Control of the House, by 63 per cent, is in the hands of the Red-White Coalition (Koalisi Merah Putih, KMP) led by Prabowo, the defeated presidential contender.

Having failed to challenge the legitimacy of Jokowi's victory in July, Prabowo's KMP moved with ruthless efficiency to secure key positions in Parliament by first changing the rules of filling the House leadership posts in favour of voting, which suits its interest. The KMP then flexed its muscle by winning the posts of House Speaker and Deputy Speakers.

As if this wasn't enough, the opposition-dominated Parliament scrapped direct elections of regional leaders - governors and mayors - giving back that power to the local legislative councils. It slao has plans to roll back direct presidential elections and return the power to elect the president to the upper House, the People's Consultative Assembly. This was precisely how Suharto ran presidential elections until he was deposed in 1998 and direct presidential elections introduced in 2004 during the reformasi era.

Throughout all this, Jokowi's coalition appears helpless as the incoming president is busily preparing to form his Cabinet. Jokowi has been trying to change the power balance by winning over some members of KMP, but to no great success so far. The earlier plan to swing the biggest opposition member, Golkar, has also fallen flat. Golkar leader Aburizal Bakrie has openly declared his loyalty to KMP in its role as a constructive opposition - amid Prabowo's conciliatory stance towards Jokowi of late.

The implications are ominous for President Jokowi. His government is under threat from a possibly hostile parliament. To make things worse, he has inherited from his predecessor Yudhoyono a budget with the "time bomb" of a growing deficit. In all, the Prabowo-led coalition could block the minority government's budgets and policies at a whim. In other words real power to run the country lies in the hands of the legislature, not the executive.

Jokowi needs a high-powered Cabinet, to be announced this week, to help him deliver in spite of the huge obstacles ahead. Failure to fulfil his campaign promises could lead to public frustration with his leadership and eventually perhaps to moves to impeach him.

What now?

Jokowi's counter-moves are two-fold: the first - to restructure the parliamentary power balance by winning over some members of the Prabowo-led coalition - is making only limited headway. A significant swing could still happen if other KMP parties defect in sufficient numbers to give him the simple majority he badly needs. The second counter-move is to appeal directly to the people and put pressure on Prabowo's KMP. If Jokowi still fails, a political crisis may develop leading to his downfall.

"He has to revamp the 2015 budget, otherwise the people will not have faith in him. If he does not come up with a sophisticated breakthrough, Jokowi may last for only two years," former coordinating economy minister Rizal Ramli said in late August. Nothing much has changed to alter the validity of this prediction.

So President Jokowi will spend much energy fighting his way through Indonesia's byzantine politics rather than building a new Indonesia. Hopefully beneath his enigma lie some hidden strengths. Otherwise he will join the pantheon of short-lived presidencies now occupied by Habibie, Abdurahman Wahid and Megawati. To be the saviour of post-Suharto Indonesia, Jokowi must keep the flame of hope alive.

Yang Razali Kassim is Senior Fellow with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.


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