Monday, October 20, 2014

Joko, we’re not in Solo any more


LATE last year Joko Widodo, then governor of Jakarta, Indonesia’s vast and messy capital, took Banyan with him on one of his daily blusukan or “spot-check” inspections of the city—to Benhil, a dilapidated market. We were joined by a flock of local press and hangers-on, but only three security guards. On October 13th Jokowi, as he is known, took another visitor, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, to another Jakarta market, Tanah Abang. Not only does Jokowi, now president-elect, keep better company these days; he is also trailed by a security detail numbering dozens, including snipers. At Benhil, he chatted at length with stallholders in his direct, unassuming way; at Tanah Abang he and Mr Zuckerberg lasted barely quarter of an hour.

That it will be harder to drop in on ordinary Indonesians and chew the fat seems a small price to pay for the highest office in the land. But Jokowi, who was  inaugurated as Indonesia’s seventh president on October 20th, says he intends to govern the country as he did Jakarta, and before that Solo, the town in central Java where he was first elected mayor in 2005. That is, he wants to retain his contacts with the people who elected him, and use his personal popularity to sweep political obstacles aside.

Adapting this approach to leading a country of 250m people, however, will not be easy. Foreign policy, for example, does not lend itself to blusukan, and in his first month in office Jokowi will be plunged into a whirlwind of summitry in China, Myanmar and Australia (which he may duck out of). And even at home, political troubles have been piling up since he won the presidential election in July. Jokowi, the little man, the first from outside the metropolitan elite to lead the country, takes office looking less like the vanguard of a triumphant reformist army and more like the leader of a beleaguered opposition.

The most obvious problem is that he lacks a parliamentary majority. A “red-and-white” coalition of parties marshalled by Prabowo Subianto, the presidential candidate whom Jokowi defeated in July, controls the new parliament convened on October 1st as it did the outgoing one. Jokowi has disdained the horse-trading that presidents use to buy parliamentary support, typically by offering cabinet posts for votes. Well, almost: he has retreated from his hope of a cabinet stacked with independent technocrats. But he still intends to give “professionals” fully 18 seats out of 34. The remaining 16 are barely enough to satisfy his own Indonesian Party of Democratic Struggle, the PDI-P, and its coalition, let alone to win over the opposition. The cabinet will be scrutinised for evidence of whether Jokowi really is his own man.

The red-and-whites have already done mischief. They have overturned the practice of giving the parliamentary speakership to the largest party—the PDI-P in this case—in favour of a vote, which the red-and-whites won. More egregiously, they passed a bill to abolish direct elections for hundreds of local posts (such as mayor of Solo and governor of Jakarta) and to have the jobs filled by indirect elections in local legislatures instead. Since the red-and-whites control 31 out of 34 provinces, and Indonesian government is highly decentralised, this would enormously complicate the president’s job. It would also represent the old establishment’s revenge on reforms that allowed outsiders such as Jokowi to rise to the top. It might make him the first and last president from outside the elite. His outgoing predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, overturned the new law by presidential decree. But his veto still has to be ratified by a vote in the new parliament.

It is not just the opposition Jokowi has to worry about. He also has to keep the PDI-P happy, which means deferring to its leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of the country’s founder and a former president herself. That complicates, for example, efforts to patch things up with Mr Yudhoyono and his Democrat Party. She has never forgiven him for replacing her as president. Jokowi’s vice-president, Jusuf Kalla, who returns to a job he held under Mr Yudhoyono in 2004-09, is a veteran political operator. But having an influential and capable deputy may well turn out to be a mixed blessing.

The third big difficulty is that Jokowi assumes the presidency at a time when the economy is slowing, the outlook is clouded and it appears harder than it has for some time to fulfil his long-held mission. He wants to show that democracy is capable of working as an economic proposition in producing leaders who can improve the lives of the poor Indonesians who elected them. To have the money to do that, he needs to cut the fuel subsidies that consume about one-fifth of the government’s budget. Despite the recent fall in the oil price, this still means sharply higher fuel costs for consumers, and hence demands for higher than usual settlements in the minimum-wage negotiations due in the coming months. Parliamentary weakness will make it harder for Jokowi to resist populist pressures.

Power to the people

Jokowi’s enduring popularity, however, remains a great advantage. His strategy is to use it to embarrass the politicians into doing his bidding, and to intervene directly to remove blockages to progress—in the landownership wrangles, for example, that can delay the big infrastructure projects Indonesia so badly needs. And Jokowi did not become the first Indonesian since independence in 1945 to rise from nowhere to the presidency without also acquiring some skills in close-quarter political fighting. Both within the PDI-P and in dealing with the parliamentary majority, he will need them. The red-and-whites have promised to use their power “to investigate and to obstruct”. But under the Indonesian constitution, the executive branch also has considerable power. The red-and-whites’ hope, for example, to neuter the anti-corruption commission, the KPK, will be impossible to realise so long as Jokowi stands firm. He may lead the opposition, but he does so with the power of the presidency. By Banyan for The Economist


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