The middle class president

Joko Widodo’s second cabinet reshuffle on 28 July has sparked a fresh round of furious debate about what it all means.

Jokowi’s main political backers, PDI-P, made no gains, but the reshuffle bestowed some key posts to new coalition parties, PAN and Golkar, rounding out the seven party rainbow cabinet that Jokowi eschewed early in his campaign.

Mysteries abound.

How, for instance, did Jokowi coax Sri Mulyani back for a starring role in Jokowi’s economic dream team, despite key architects of her 2010 fall sitting in his same camp? General Wiranto, serial and serious human rights abuser, Hanura head and supporter of the Jokowi coalition, is back in government, in an appointment that feels decidedly absent of political necessity.

Luhut Panjaitan, the president’s former-business partner, ex-military general, political fixer, and feted “real deputy president” was abruptly transferred from the Political, Legal and Security Affairs portfolio to Coordinating Minister of Maritime Affairs.

More puzzling still was his sad Facebook status which suggested that for an all-powerful political tsar, he had little prior knowledge that the switch was coming. Meanwhile, Anies Baswedan, the cabinet’s last remaining progressive pick, has been ousted, with Jokowi reportedly terminating their relationship.

Does the reshuffle show that Jokowi, Indonesia’s first middle class president since the fall of Suharto, is consolidating power or that he is merely a puppet for established political elites?

The question itself speaks to an ongoing debate in the study of Indonesian politics about the extent to which ordinary politicians can enact reform in a predatory political landscape dominated by oligarchs and old-regime politico-bureaucrats.

On one side of that debate have been the oligarchy theorists who argue that Indonesian politics is so riddled with rent seekers that ordinary people-cum-politicians like Jokowi are too constrained to be able to effect meaningful change.

On the other side of the fence are pluralists who agree that the political landscape is populated by a ruling oligarchy, but maintain that well made democratic institutions can constrain their power. Change is possible and Jokowi’s rise from entrepreneurial furniture maker to mayor to president, is evidence that those institutions are starting to produce a new political class that can have positive democratic effects.

Make no mistake, the tensions and contestation between Jokowi and his coalition are a big part of the fault-lines in his government. Understanding Jokowi as fundamentally compromised by his old regime players is central to understanding the limits of his administration.

But at the same time, this line of argument sheds no light on the question of what can be compromised in the tussle between reform and stasis. In a crowded bar of political priorities, what are the limits of belief?

Jokowi’s, it would seem, is a double shot of developmentalism straight up.

In the rumble between the pluralists and the oligarchy theorists, what’s missing is an appreciation of Jokowi’s own illiberal tendencies, his impatience with legal complexity and the haphazard ideological mash-up that guides his economic thinking. These are not qualities of the man per se, but symptomatic of the Indonesian middle class and the unique political conditions under which it was formed.

A post-authoritarian developmentalism is front and centre of the administration’s agenda. While reform has been one of the key slogans of the Jokowi administration, that reform has focused mainly on the economy and not at all on amplifying the quality of Indonesian democracy.

For instance, despite the economic boon that legal certainty offers everyone from foreign investors to national fiscal repatriators, the question of substantive law reform has never been further from the political agenda. Indeed, the President actively and repeatedly discourages the law from pursuing corruption cases for fear it will interrupt everything from his “big bang economic liberalisation” to the tax amnesty.

State owned enterprises (SOEs), long used as piggy banks for the political elite, have received an unprecedented capital injection to spearhead the administration’s infrastructure agenda. There’s real rationality in that, but asking creaking SOEs to deliver multibillion dollar projects, on 1 year tendered contracts without the parallel imperative to reform processes and management, suggests a disinterest in the fundamentals of accountability.

Jokowi has introduced the death penalty with gusto, backed by overwhelming public support. Eighteen drug felons have been killed by firing squad in just under two years, while harm reduction programs have been systematically cut. Each round of executions has seen serious questions about the legal integrity of the trial and sentencing and the process of clemency has been riddled with procedural irregularities. And yet, in the face of such bungling, NasDem’s Prasetyo, a conservative political appointment to Attorney General, has outlasted two cabinet reshuffles.

This year, the promise to address unresolved human rights abuses has seen the administration sponsor an unprecedented two-day symposium on the mass killings of 1965. But, Jokowi himself was careful not to attend and to frame the resolution of old human rights cases within a wider technocratic objective to “move forward”. Wiranto’s appointment to Coordinating Minister of Political, Legal and Security Affairs effectively ends this human rights conversation.

Meanwhile, there has been major regression in the security sector. Emboldened by deeply conservative leadership and presidential politicking, the military has openly reclaimed its place in domestic security and development. Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu has argued that Indonesia is under threat from a proxy war, waged through domestic NGOs, forest haze and homosexuals. His counterpart heading the TNI, Gatot Nurmantyo has openly voiced doubts about the suitability of democracy to Indonesia. Together they front a people’s defence program, Bela Negara [State Defence], that harks back to Hankamrata, or ‘Total People’s Defence’, a civil militarisation program under the New Order.

Jokowi’s pro-poor agenda is also mixed. There’s a health care card, an education card, a new family prosperity card, all of which promise great things for social redistribution, but social spending is yet to increase significantly. Jokowi himself is careful to appear sympathetic to the problems of the poor that catch his eye such as the Kendeng cement protestors. Others, such as the fisher communities along the Jakarta Bay that as governor he swore to protect, have seen their political hopes razed alongside their homes. How the One Map project will balance the imperatives of the state infrastructure program against community claims to land will be instructive.

What we are left with is a ruling ideology that is avowedly developmentalist, made up of an ideological mash up of neoliberalism, economic nationalism, and social engineering, rather than any liberal progressive agenda to improve the quality of democracy.

Jokowi’s developmentalist democracy goes beyond a simplistic personal attribute or set of beliefs: it is inherent to his class status. After all, Jokowi is a member of the bourgeoisie, the small entrepreneurial faction of Indonesia’s middle class. This new rich came of age in the 1990s, in a wider context of waning state capitalism and the emergence of a rising oligarchical class.

Up and coming entrepreneurs of Jokowi’s ilk often didn’t have the luxury of avoiding the predatory state. Instead they needed to become adept at forming alliances with established political and business players, however uncomfortable. Those alliances were as much an exercise in wilful misunderstanding beneath broadly agreeable slogans – national integrity, Pancasila, food sustainability – than any single ideological agenda.

More broadly, elements of the middle class are defined by a kind of ideological schizophrenia, often holding a confusion of liberal and illiberal views concurrently. They exhibit more interest in firm rule, and the provision of services and standards, than a truly social democracy.

The middle class are fearful of social and spatial disorder, ever conscious of vast number of Indonesia’s poor and the cheap labour they provide. Historically, this has made the middle class vulnerable to populism and ultra-nationalism.

Their extensive rational education makes them more, not less, vulnerable to the magical thinking offered by technocratic solutions to socio-economic ills. When that hasn’t worked, the middle class trust their coercive state institutions, despite knowing their brutal history, to quell social disorder. Rather than thinking of the bourgeoisie as beating heart democrats, repressed by old order forces, and welcoming their rise as an a priori win for democracy, we instead need to consider the long history in which alliances with regressive forces, however shifting and disloyal, have central to their genesis.

This should also give way to harder questions about the negotiated agendas of the “new faces” cutting their teeth on regional politics with an eye upwards.

If the cabinet reshuffle tells us anything, it’s that our Middle Class President is more comfortable in his uncomfortable political accommodations than we have previously imagined.


Jacqui Baker is a Lecturer in Southeast Asian Politics at Murdoch University. This editorial is adapted from a talk given on 29 July at the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre’s Democratic Updates Policy Roundtable.

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13 Responses

  1. Ken Ward

    A small correction. Jokowi did not ‘introduce’ the death penalty. Rather, he has used it much more frequently than his predecessor, who brought in something of a moratorium for a few years. Among other instances, SBY did preside over the execution of three Bali bombers and, as if to restore some distorted form of ecumenical balance, three Catholic militants as well.

    It is interesting that Jokowi and Lord High Executioner Prasetyo have not targeted any terrorists on death row in their zeal for capital punishment. It is as if drug traffickers are the more dangerous enemies as the dread proxy war goes on.

    As far as I know, it is still a mystery why ten traffickers due to be executed a couple of weeks ago were spared at virtually the last minute.

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  2. Avatar
    Max Lane

    “more comfortable in his uncomfortable political accommodations than we have previously imagined.” – Actually within Indonesia, and to some extent without, there were those that warned of this outcome. Some of the activist groups on the Left of the political spectrum used the slogan: “Jokowi tidak akan membawa perbaikan, Prabowi akan membawa perburukan.” (Jokowi will bring no improvements; Prabowo will make things worse.”

    In addition, Jokowi’s record of uncomfortable accommodations both precedes his Presidency as well as was clearly espoused by him in his major TV appearances. His candidature for Governor of Jakarta was done in a coalition with Gerindra. Immediately on winning the Presidential election, he accepted Hanura under Wiranto into his coalition. His major national TV appearances during the campaign – the debates with Prabowo and his dialogue on TV with KADIN – also made things clear. In the debate with Prabowo he gave no priority whatsoever to human rights or socio-political democratic reforms. It was his supporters, in Indonesia and observers overseas, who played up the in-passing comments he made on these issues. In his nationally televised dialogue with KADIN during the campaign, he made it clear that deregulation of business regulations and finding funds for infrastructure projects would define his presidency.

    While I agree closely with the general description of Widodo’s policies in this piece, I think the conceptualisation is wrong. I don’t at all think that Widodo can be called a “developmentalist”. The piece describes Widodo as both developmentalist and neo-liberal: I don’t think you can be both. Developmentalism implies some overall idea of development, however that is defined. Widodo is more a “private sector growthist” – business deregulation and state improvement of infrastructure is seen by him as what is needed to help business, especially kabupaten and provincial business, to grow. He appears to have no ideas regards economic development, let alone, social development. The BAPPENAS Ministry is no longer even the ornamentation it was during Suharto’s era.

    The area were he has been most protected by politicos in Indonesia and some commentators is in the social welfare sector. In the national TV debates with Prabowo he held up his education and health cards to indicate what he would do. But all that as happened, as far as I can tell, is that the old cards issued under Yudhoyono may have been replaced. As the piece rightly indicates there has not been the additional funding that is needed to allow these cards to operate as they were perceived to operate in Solo. Furthermore, Widodo has just signed decisions that will cut welfare spending, including in health, education and public housing.

    His cabinet reshuffle is aimed at shoring up a new economic team to get the government out of the crisis hole it is digging for itself: bringing in Sri Mulyani to help tighten budgetary controls and raise revenue; putting Luhut in charge of natural resources; and Thomas Lembong doing hands on management of investment management. Otherwise his transaksional politics, such as with Wiranto, Golkar and PAN, which he promised he would never do, is aimed at keeping everybody satisfied while he concentrates on what he thinks will boost the country: his infrastructure and business deregulation package.

    But he must feel safe. The ‘opposition’ now is Gerindra, PKS, and PPP: a narrow spectrum.

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  3. Avatar
    Max Lane

    P.S. I also don’t think “middle class President” is the best labelling. He certainly is not part of the Conglomerate Elite layer, that is true. And he is certainly not a worker or peasant. So perhaps he is in the “middle”. But the middle class in Indonesia is, apart from being several million people, very heterogeneous and variegated. Not all those elements share all or most of Widodo’s outlook. I think though, he is probably very representative of the biggest section of the Indonesian capitalist class, namely the kabupaten capitalists.

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    • Si Pandir

      Hi Pak Max,
      OOT, I read your translation of Pramudya’s books. Great work! So good I thought I was reading it in Bahasa.

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    • Jacqui Baker

      Hi Max, lots of interesting comments here. Thanks for the heads up on the Kadin debate, which I missed completely. That said, why would that be the debate in which JKW actually “reveals” himself. If anything, he’s been an incredible shapeshifter able to articulate common interests to different strategic alliances. Your remark that JKW’s hr policies were a figment of civil society’s imagination or a projection is not true, although certainly he manipulated them for the purposes of election. I don’t agree that he doesn’t have a position on development and it’s a matter for debate whether he’s interested in business for business’ sake (and which business, business for whom?) or in order to achieve certain social outcomes, but, really these debates point to a more interesting observation: which is the way JKW’s political interests, beyond consolidating and maintaining power, are so difficult to narrow down.

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  4. Ken Ward

    I agree with Max Lane that describing Jokowi as ‘middle class president’ is not very useful. Defining somebody as middle class needs the presence of an upper class for that definition to be set against. But Indonesia’s upper class, if it has one, is as amorphous as the middle class, which is indeed ‘heterogeneous and variegated’, as Max points out.

    The Indonesian aristocracy has virtually disappeared. In any case, an aristocracy stands out most sharply against a middle class or bourgeoisie when it is a landholding class, but Indonesia’s various aristocracies have rarely been ‘latifundistas’. And it is hard to think of an Indonesian equivalent even of the Earl of Grantham.

    The inadvisability of calling Jokowi a or the ‘middle class president’ seems apparent when one tries to assign class labels to his predecessors. Was SBY, for example, upper class? He certainly didn’t start his life in the lap of middle class comfort, let alone upper class privilege. Had he not fallen into the welcome embrace of Sarwo Edhie’s daughter, he might never have become president. But was even Sarwo upper class? Ibu Ani herself is no Countess of Grantham, whatever airs she puts on.

    OK, so SBY is a hard case. But what about Sukarno, Soeharto, Habibie, Gus Dur and Megawati? I am at a loss to stick a class label on any of these. If such an attempt doesn’t work for them, it probably won’t work for the current incumbent of the presidency either.

    A more general point is that sociology has been very much neglected in the last twenty or thirty years of academic study of Indonesia. This is a great misfortune.

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  5. This is the limitation when you look Indonesia from the perspective of a western researcher. You only see a person such as Jokowi with your individualist lense. Therefore, you went wrong when explaining his reshuffle politics.

    I think you have to see Indonesia as a collective society. You may not see Jokowi as the only main political leader. You need to see the roles of the other political leaders. Jokowi is only one part of a complex Indonesian political system. Thus you have to see holistically, such as the role of Ibu Megawati to guiding him.

    To my understanding, you can use several western researcher’s lenses when understanding China. Their lenses when explaining China, I think, would be helpful to understand more about Indonesia and also Jokowi. What is the difference between Indonesia and China is China only has one political party (Communist Party) while Indonesia has many political parties. However, the way it works is mostly similar.

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  6. Avatar
    Aboeprijadi Santoso

    I like this piece. Well informed and distinctively conceptualized. Perhaps it should be emphasized, however, that Jokowi is not really a politician i.e. a PDIP cadre from the outset. A successful Solo mayor who happened to be PDIP member (not the other way around) and catapulted to become a very popular Jakarta mayor. Such that the party’s Matriarch Megawati had no other option than to sacrifice herself as presidential hopeful. When he, a PDIP man but not part of the party establishment, won the presidency – thanks to Prabowo’s infamous reputation among the middle class – many observers called him anti-priyayi populist. What is relevant here is that having been more or less ‘liberated’ from Megawati and PDIP elite very recently, Jokowi now seems to be caught in between today’s biggest oligarchs: the Golkar establishment, Jusuf Kalla, and Luhut – the first being the new partners he had to accomodate, the second Megawati’s real representative in the cabinet (not her daughter, Puan, mind you) and the third his political strategist. That’s the tragic of a “kabupaten capitalist” (as Max Lane said)-cum-politico-buraucrat.

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    • Tukang Ojek

      I think you will find that many middle class voters actually voted for Prabowo, so I’m not sure how infamous his reputation is to the middle class

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      • Wayne Forrest

        Good point. I meet regularly with Indonesian students when they are here in US. All enter by virtue of their advanced degrees the middle class. A good cross section of them supported Prabowo.

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  7. Josa Herman Rozali

    Unfortunately, my english isn’t so good to express my detail thought regarding this matter. So, I just wanna say that Mr. Baker wrote with very weak argumentation. The writer seems don’t know about who Mr. Widodo really is, while majority middle class in Indonesia like me ensure that he is a very smart politician facing our multi complex social political situation and sophisticated animal politician group. Let c until next 2 years, Sir!

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    • Johannes Nugroho

      I would probably describe Indonesia’s political reality as being more surreal than sophisticated. The president is without a doubt a role model for many socially upward and mobile Indonesians, I guess, which explains his popularity with the middles classes (it’s indeed difficult to classify their variegated conditions into one class). However, I must profess my surprise at the revelation that Ms Jacqui Baker has apparently undergone a sex change.

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  8. What I like from this piece is the argument when the author defines Indonesian middle class who suffer from a kind of ideological schizophrenia as a symptom of a new democracy. Nonetheless 3 points have been missing in this article from international and political economic perspectives . (1) Jokowi’s strategy in appointing the new cabinet members shows him as a powerful personal politician such as Gus Dur which is full of surprises particularly to western word in the case of Masala Gas field that has disappointed many international investors and consultants. As a result for example, the resigning Indonesia Freeport president following the appointment of Rizal Rami who demanded Freeport to pay mining royalties (very below the gold royalty in western Australia for example) and mine sustainably in line with the “international standards”; (2) the appointment of Sri Mulyani to please the market and act economically sound in the budget management of the national and (3) Jokowi’s well understanding and his ability to utilise the rising of China without necessary compromise a traditional strategic ties with the west in controlling China in Natural Sea…

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