Saturday, December 12, 2015

Indonesian President Jokowi’s year of living cautiously

As the year draws to a close the president is on firmer political ground but hopes for serious reform have almost entirely evaporated.

If this trade-off between reform and stability sounds familiar, it’s because it was the formula that came to define the leadership of Jokowi’s predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. By the time it ended, the Yudhoyono decade was simultaneously seen as the period in which Indonesian democracy matured, and when its pathologies — corruption, money politics and sectarian discrimination — became entrenched. The commodities boom made it easier to obscure the serious structural deficiencies of Indonesia’s economy. The politically thankless tasks of protecting human rights and cracking down on corruption were put in the too hard basket.

This is where they remain. As Jokowi was an outsider to Jakarta’s political elite, supporters hoped he would strive to preserve his autonomy from the establishment. This might have limited the influence of Indonesia’s corrupt political parties over the executive branch. In reality, Jokowi seems to have internalised the idea that his impostor status is a vulnerability. Jokowi has in fact maintained the accommodative stance seen in his formation of a cabinet dominated by party-linked patronage appointments.

What will be remembered as the defining blunder of Jokowi’s presidency came in February when he nominated a venal but politically-connected officer as the new police chief after intense lobbying from party bosses. The ensuing public outrage saw the appointment cancelled but Jokowi’s anticorruption credentials have never recovered.

Jokowi has signalled that he sees good governance as subordinate to quick policy implementation. As the powers of Indonesia’s formidable Corruption Eradication Commission have come under renewed attack by politicians, Jokowi has expended little political capital in its defence. He seems to have endorsed instead the conservative trope that the Commission’s anti-graft crackdown has ‘slowed down development’. He has gone so far as to propose a decree protecting regional officials from prosecution for ‘minor’ infractions such as flouting procurement and budgeting rules.

Efforts by conservatives to tame the perceived excesses of Indonesian democratisation continue. These reactionary forces have been uninhibited by a president lacking Yudhoyono’s concern for his international image as a statesman of democracy. The military has taken small but worrying steps towards restoring its position in civilian life. These include, launching a ‘defence of the nation’ indoctrination program and pushing for regulations that allow it a greater role in domestic security. Recent censorship of forums on the anniversary of the 1965 anti-communist massacres and sporadic anti-foreign outbursts by officials speak to the palpable return of a conservative nationalism under Jokowi.

Still, while advocates of good governance and human rights see little to praise in the new president, the gears of government still turn. Polls show that his popularity, which fell throughout 2015, has bottomed out as welfare programs inherited from Yudhoyono have been scaled up. Progress is being made on the centrepiece of his agenda: dealing with Indonesia’s terrible infrastructure deficit. Opposition parties in parliament have largely laid down their political arms — some even defecting to the government coalition — in the knowledge that Jokowi represents business as usual.

Jokowi’s renewed confidence in his political standing may prompt more risk-taking on economic policy, which has so far seen more misses than hits. A new courageousness is perhaps behind his announcement during a visit to Washington in October that Indonesia will seek to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) although it is difficult to judge what the result will finally be. This pledge is nothing if not ambitious. Indonesia’s economy is riddled with the protectionism and distorted domestic markets that the deal is supposed to inhibit. Joining the TPP is as good a pretext as any for pursuing badly overdue structural reforms.

But liberal proposals are politically toxic in Indonesia — and at odds with Jokowi’s own track record. His ministers spent much of this year recapitalising state-owned enterprises with taxpayers’ money, raising tariffs, and promoting the misguided goal of ‘food self-sufficiency’. The recent rhetorical lurch towards the agenda of foreign investors indicates that Jokowi has at least taken their criticisms seriously.

But if Jokowi really wants Indonesia to embrace free trade and markets, he has to be willing to live, politically speaking, a little dangerously.

Liam Gammon is a PhD candidate at the College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University. 

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2015 in review and the year ahead.

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