After a year of seeming inability to get much traction on the country’s problems, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has exploded into action, naming an anti-corruption activist as his chief of staff, firing a controversial police general and vowing quick and “massive deregulation” in manufacturing, trade and agriculture.
A slowing economy, falling rupiah, sluggish growth and fears that it will all get worse seem to have motivated the president and his advisors to finally get serious about changing the investment climate. It may be an uphill battle against a bureaucracy that can be maddeningly complex and corrupt.
Since his inauguration in October 2014, Jokowi, as he is universally known, has seemingly disappointed the millions who voted for him in the hope that he could replicate on a national level the success he enjoyed in his brief term as governor of Jakarta.
After taking the bold decision early in his term to largely do away with budget-draining fuel subsidies, his ministers have been blamed for often contradictory policies that hamper rather than attract investment. It has seemed as if nobody was manning the ship as headlines were grabbed by everything from banning beer sales in mini-markets to police attacks on the government anti-corruption agency. None of it helped the private sector gain confidence.
In addition, he has had to cope with the behind-the-scenes power of former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, the head of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) to which Jokowi belongs. Megawati reluctantly endorsed his July 2014 run for president but she has since seemed an obstacle to good governance.
Jokowi’s hand was also strengthened last week when he completed a political deal to bring the moderate Islamist National Mandate Party (PAN), which has at least some reformist credentials and holds 49 of the 560 seats in the legislature, into the ruling coalition. The move gives the government a majority and leaves the once-fearsome opposition led by Jokowi’s presidential campaign opponent Prabowo Subianto and the Gerindra Party floundering.
In addition, many of the president’s initial cabinet appointments were dictated by the PDI-P with an apparent eye to the spoils of government.
A battle several months ago over Megawati’s desire to name her former aide Gen. Budi Gunawan as national police chief led to open warfare with the independent Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), which was left weakened after it named Budi a corruption suspect and became a target of police wrath.
In the end, Budi became deputy chief and according to most sources he effectively leads the force from the No 2 position. It remains to be seen how Gen. Anang Iskandar’s appointment as new National Police detective chief will affect Budi’s influence.
Perhaps more damaging, top government officials continued the push towards economic nationalism that began in the last administration, making it more difficult for multinationals to operate and dragging down investor sentiment. To make the storm worse, as the nationalists narrowed opportunity, the economy, still largely dependent on commodity exports including coal and crude oil, began to follow the rest of the world downhill.
Tight monetary policy, delayed infrastructure spending and other problems have pushed real GDP down from 5.1 percent in 2014 to just 4.87 percent forecast for 2015, a six-year low. The rupiah fell in August to RP14,146:US$1, levels not seen since the Asian financial crisis in 1998 .
An August 12 cabinet reshuffle brought in new blood, including Darmin Nasution, an ally of ousted reformer and current World Bank No. 2 Sri Mulyani Indrawati, as coordinating economics minister and Thomas Lembong, a Harvard-educated former chief executive of Quvat Management, a private equity firm, who also worked previously at Deutsche Bank and Morgan Stanley, as trade minister.
Signs and signals
Some observers believe Jokowi’s new clout was signaled by court decisions in mid-August nullifying a US$125 million lawsuit against the prestigious Jakarta Intercultural School and freeing on appeal two educators who were found guilty in April in a bizarre case charging them with repeatedly abusing kindergarten students sexually.
The case gained widespread notoriety outside of Indonesia because of its blatant unfairness and the important role the school plays in the international business and diplomatic community in Indonesia. The charges were believed to have been engineered by an unnamed but powerful tycoon who was trying to take over the school’s lucrative property.
The president is also preparing for an October visit to Washington and officials have been quietly removing roadblocks for selected US companies that have indicated a willingness to increase investment if conditions improve. “The president wants the US trip to be a success,” said one of the event’s planners. “And that means getting a number, a big dollar figure, for incoming investment deals.”
In any case, Jokowi has installed as chief of staff Teten Masduki, a well-known former anti-corruption activist and lawyer, who replaces retired Gen. Luhut Pandjaitan, a close Jokowi confidante who has moved to become the Coordinating Minister for Politics, Legal and Human Rights. Teten is the former chairman of Indonesia Corruption Watch and an adamant backer of the KPK.
Jokowi also has fired Police Cmdr. Gen. Budi Waseso, a Budi Gunawan ally and the powerful National Police detective chief, who has doggedly pursued the KPK with nuisance charges. Former National Narcotics Agency (BNN) head Iskandar has replaced Waseso.
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This story was first published in the Asia Sentinel, a platform for news, analysis and opinion on national and regional issues in Asia.– Rappler.com