Jokowi presidency: How fast can Indonesia change?

Maria A. Ressa
Change is disruptive and messy, and when it happens fast, it fails to take everyone along.

How much change can a society absorb without triggering a backlash threatening to take it all down?

The election of two leaders on opposite sides of the world help answer that question: Barack Obama in the United States and Joko Widodo in Indonesia.

In the US, the first African-American president signaled a new beginning that ushered in one of the most divisive periods in American politics: when political gridlock disenfranchised the center, and a bickering legislature forgot the people. 

Change is disruptive and messy, and when it happens fast, it fails to take everyone along. 

Left behind

From gay rights to health care, many older Americans felt powerless as their values were battered by changing times. When the ones marginalized seemed to be getting a better deal than those just making ends meet, a devastating undertow set the stage for an understandable rejection even while younger Americans thought change was happening too slowly. That pushed people even further away from the center, bitterly polarizing society and creating ripe conditions for the Tea Party.

This is creative destruction, seismic change that’s challenging and redefining values not just in America but around the world.

Like Obama, Indonesia’s 53-year-old Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, is a change agent, but before he was even sworn into office, his “transformative presidency” seemed on the verge of failure.

A new generation of leaders

In only the 3rd direct elections for president in Indonesian history, 135 million Indonesians voted a lanky, unassuming carpenter turned furniture exporter as the leader of the world’s 3rd largest democracy.

It’s a turning point – a maturing – of Indonesian democracy, a journey that began with the end of authoritarian ruler Suharto’s 32-year-rule 16 years ago. For the first time, an outsider, someone not a member of its political elite or powerful military, is taking power.

Born in the slums of Java, Jokowi represents a new generation of leaders – directly elected by the people, first as Surakarta mayor and then governor of Jakarta. He’s seen as a clean politician, a good manager who keeps the people’s welfare in mind, with no vested interests and no debts to traditional patronage networks.

His slim win last July against Prabowo, the son-in-law of Suharto and the candidate of an entrenched political elite of millionaire businessmen, shook Indonesia’s traditional power structures.

Which may be why the system turned quickly against him, showing how the best of intentions can sow the seeds of failure for an idealistic leader getting his first real taste of national realpolitik.

Turning down alliances

It began with a campaign based on principles, one he risked losing because he refused the horse-trading that characterized Indonesia’s fractious political landscape. Jokowi turned down alliances of convenience like with Golkar, Suharto’s former ruling party, which had an established political machinery he could’ve used to cement his early, wide lead.

Jokowi’s ideals had a double-edged effect: they were a breath of fresh air for the youth, but for the experienced, he was dismissed as politically naïve. Refusing to trade Cabinet seats to cement alliances in the legislature gave the upper hand to Prabowo, who pulled together a 63% majority in Parliament.

Before Jokowi’s inauguration, Prabowo’s coalition passed a controversial bill into law that ended the direct elections for village heads, mayors and governors – the very same mechanism that surfaced grassroots leaders like Jokowi.

Now they would be selected by local assemblies, a sure way of grabbing control again for the political elite, strengthening an old-style political machinery, and making sure upcoming politicians are once again beholden to those in power.

It was a slap in the face for Jokowi. Prabowo’s coalition went further and installed their candidate as speaker of Parliament, along with winning all 4 posts for deputy speakers.

“We will be able to control the legislative agenda,” said Hashim Djojohadikusumo, Prabowo’s brother.

Economic crisis?

A potential legislative deadlock blocking President Jokowi’s agenda, like in the United States, is scaring investors in Indonesia and focusing even greater attention on the economic problems that need to be immediately addressed in Southeast Asia’s largest economy.

With the commodity boom waning, Indonesia doesn’t look like it can maintain its recent 6% annual growth rate. In the last few weeks, the rupiah hit its lowest level in 8 months. Second quarter growth is the slowest in 5 years, and Indonesia’s large current account deficit show that it just doesn’t have enough money to pay its bills.

Which is why Jokowi pledged to tackle the politically sensitive issue of fuel subsidies that have given his country one of the world’s cheapest fuel prices. Analysts say this is the single most important domestic policy challenge and has deprived Indonesia of crucial funds for infrastructure development, one of its greatest impediments to growth.

Fuel subsidies cost about $20 billion a year, nearly a fifth of its budget, more than health care and social services combined. The World Bank says that mainly benefits the rich in Indonesia. Jokowi’s economic advisers and his vice president, Jusuf Kalla, say his government will move on this within the first 100 days – perhaps by November 1.

The increase could be as high as 50%, a senior adviser told Rappler, and must be approved by the opposition-dominated Parliament.

Last week, Jokowi and Prabowo finally met for the first time since the elections and presented what seemed like a united front, but behind the scenes, it looks like Jokowi is diving into real-politik, telling the New York Times that he expects to control a majority in Parliament “within 6 months.”

Regarding the increase in fuel prices, Jokowi said he would explain directly to the people that the money saved would only help them.

“It’s very important to explain to the people so they can accept our decision,” he said, but such a large increase will be unpopular with both the people who elected him and Parliament.

“He has no choice,” another senior adviser told me, “SBY (referring to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono) after 10 years in power left us with negative cash flow, and now we have to fix it.”

So how much change can a society absorb without tearing itself apart?  How much short-term pain can voters accept for long-term growth? 

These are only some of the immediate questions President Jokowi of Indonesia will answer in the coming months as he struggles to balance the moral high-ground which got him elected with the compromises demanded by realpolitik.

He can choose to learn from Obama who started on a high note but who had to navigate a minefield that’s inherently averse to change. Or his own predecessor Yudhoyono, who fulfilled the high expectations of his first term but in the end lost sight of the kind of change Indonesia needed to move forward.–

Maria A. Ressa was CNN Jakarta bureau chief from 1995 to 2005. 

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Maria A. Ressa

Maria Ressa has been a journalist in Asia for nearly 35 years. As Rappler's co-founder, executive editor and CEO, she has endured constant political harassment and arrests by the Duterte government. For her courage and work on disinformation and 'fake news,' Maria was named Time Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year, was among its 100 Most Influential People of 2019, and has also been named one of Time's Most Influential Women of the Century. She was also part of BBC's 100 most inspiring and influential women of 2019 and Prospect magazine's world's top 50 thinkers, and has won many awards for her contributions to journalism and human rights. Before founding Rappler, Maria focused on investigating terrorism in Southeast Asia. She opened and ran CNN's Manila Bureau for nearly a decade before opening the network's Jakarta Bureau, which she ran from 1995 to 2005. She wrote Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia and From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism.