Indonesian President Joko Widodo swept to power on a wave of optimism for the country, but has he lived up to voters’ expectations? The victory of Joko Widodo – commonly known as Jokowi – in the July 2014 Indonesian Presidential election was seen by many Indonesian observers as a circuit-breaker. Jokowi presented as Mr Clean, the businessman turned politician ready to tackle the country’s vested interest groups, to straighten out its political and economic order, and to eliminate (or at least to reduce substantially) corruption.
His victory was all the more symbolically important for who he defeated: Prabowo Subianto, a former Army general, former son-in-law of Suharto, and a man seen by his opponents at least as the antithesis of a modern, clean political leader.
Like their Indonesian counterparts, international observers were also generally positive, though often tempering enthusiasm with warnings of the significant problems Jokowi faced in trying to meet voters’ expectations of him.
Jokowi’s first year and a half in office suggest that many of those reservations were justified.
On the positive side, while his initial Cabinet was criticised by many as being too aligned with party elites, his re-shuffle in August 2015 has been better received. In particular, his appointment of Thomas Lembong as Minister for Trade may have headed off some of the elements of economic nationalism that had seemed to characterise his administration’s approach to the economy.
Spending on desperately-needed infrastructure development – a key campaign promise – proceeded very slowly in Jokowi’s first year in office, but seems now to be picking up.
The government subsidy on fuel – accounting for over 20 per cent of the national budget in 2014 – was removed early in Jokowi’s term of office; a move as much lauded by economists as criticised by consumers.
On top of that, smart health, family welfare and education cards for Indonesia’s poor have been introduced.
And there have been no suggestions that Jokowi is personally corrupt: he retains his clean, honest image. He continues with his unannounced visits to community groups, markets and the like, the sleeves on his white shirt rolled up: a man of the people.
But there is much on the other side of the register.
The well-respected Setara Institute reported in January this year that cases of religious intolerance rose nearly 50 per cent between 2014 and 2015. Indonesia’s status – largely self-proclaimed – as a religiously-tolerant Muslim majority country remains under threat.
Jokowi’s much-heralded new approach to the persistent problems in Papua petered out after the widely publicised release of a number of Papuan political prisoners in May 2015. Tellingly, one of those released, Filip Karma, said: “I trust Jokowi as a person, but I do not trust him as a president. . . . As president and the highest commander, he has no influence over the military and police”.
The Indonesian economy, during the Jokowi’s first year in office at least, grew at disappointingly low levels, hampered by falling world commodity prices, protectionist policy sentiment in Jakarta, corruption and poor infrastructure.
Jokowi’s anti-corruption credentials took a hit when he tried to appoint, as National Police Chief, a man (Budi Gunawan) who was then named as a corruption suspect by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). He was forced to back down on this appointment, but for months sat on the fence while parliament debated a move to shackle the KPK through revisions to its legislative foundation, and the police arrested two senior KPK investigators. Eventually both the draft legislation and the arrests were put on hold – but the impression of a lack of presidential support for the KPK remains.
In recent weeks there has been a flood of anti-LGBT sentiment by political and community leaders, with the Indonesian Psychiatric Association asserting that homosexuals and bisexuals were “people with psychiatric problems”, while transgender people had “mental disorders”. Jokowi has done nothing to rein in this vitriolic campaign.
Of course Jokowi is not to blame for all his government’s shortcomings and his apparent lack of firm leadership. For much of his time as President he has lacked majority support in the Parliament, though with the decay of the opposition Coalition, this has become less of an issue. He has also been hampered by the clear lack of support from Megawati Sukarnoputri, his own party’s Chair.
And to some extent his lack of decisive leadership might be a product of his cultural background. Speaking of Jokowi’s refusal to reject outright the parliament’s revisions to the KPK legislation, but only to postpone consideration of them for an indeterminate period, one of his supporters argued that “for a Javanese, to postpone something is the same as rejecting it”.
Despite these issues, though, Jokowi’s standing with the Indonesian public at large is high.
After his inauguration in October, one reputable public opinion poll recorded 75 per cent support for Jokowi, considerably more than the 53 per cent support he garnered in the elections three months earlier.
His popularity had fallen by mid-2015, but by the end of the year he had climbed back up the popularity pole, with 63 per cent of respondents saying they were confident or very confident than he was leading Indonesia towards a better future.
He is also still the nation’s preferred President. Respondents in the December 2015 poll were asked who amongst 37 nominated politicians they would vote for if a Presidential election were to be held that day. Jokowi was by far the most popular choice, with 33 per cent support, as compared with 21 per cent who preferred his erstwhile opponent, Prabowo. Megawati Sukarnoputri was rated ninth, supported by only 1.7 per cent of respondents.
Obviously the political leadership the Indonesian electorate most admires is not the clear and decisive style that many of Jokowi’s critics espouse. Imperturbability is more admired than assertiveness. Thus far, Jokowi seems to be meeting the Indonesian electorate’s expectations.
Colin Brown is Adjunct Professor, Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University.
This article is a collaboration between New Mandala and Policy Forum – the region’s leading platform for policy issues and insights.