Indonesian politics has not been this interesting in a long time. Three months into the new administration of President Joko Widodo, the jubilant optimism that accompanied his victory in elections last year has been replaced by more sober realism. Power in Indonesia has rather fluid qualities. It ebbs and flows. The balance of power in Jokowi’s administration is seen as less viscous than was the case under his predecessor, which makes for unpredictability.
The President’s biggest challenge in his first 100 days has been to consolidate power. Winning the popular vote did not give him an untrammeled mandate. He is shackled to former President Megawati Soekarnoputri, the leader of the party that nominated him to run for President. She in turn had a huge hand in selecting the lion’s share of his cabinet, along with a few other minor stakeholders in the winning coalition. Whilst everyone expected the formidable opposition coalition in parliament to throw obstacles in the path of his reforms, it turns out that Jokowi’s main problem is his own party.
How the President has managed this problem, and the measure of success and failure in his first three months in office begins to illuminate the nature of his leadership. But it also suggests the need for a re-calibration of expectations and a degree of caution.
Supporters were encouraged by his cool unruffled response to the onslaught on his first few weeks in office made by the opposition coalition in parliament; then by the decisive manner he removed fuel subsidies at the end of last year. But the biggest test of his power to date has been the handling of his appointment of Budi Goenawan as national police chief.
Observers believe that Budi, a former close aide to Megawati was her choice, and that pushing his appointment so hard was a response to Jokowi’s sudden appointment of Luhud Panjaitan as his chief of staff. Luhud, a former Indonesian Special Forces commander who is possibly the President’s closest political friend and ally, forged ties with Jokowi when he was still a furniture-maker and exporter in Central Java. His appointment to the chief of staff position was regarded as a bid to balance the forces constraining Jokowi’s presidency.
Budi Goenawan’s appointment generated a storm of protest after the National Counter Corruption Agency (KPK) indicated he was a suspect. Insiders speculated that this was a play by Jokowi to have Megawati’s candidate knocked back, though others said that Budi had greatly helped Jokowi during the election campaign. Either way, the President’s moves to consolidate power collided with the wider concerns of his popular support base, members of which lashed out at the President’s defiance of the KPK. After almost a week of mounting tension, Jokowi announced the decision on Budi Goenawan’s candidacy would be postponed – though not completely canned.
The other theme of Jokowi’s first three months has been a firm resolve to implement an assertive maritime policy. In keeping with his promise to protect Indonesia’s fish stocks from the rampant poaching by foreign fishing fleets in the country’s archipelagic waters, the authorities have seized vessels from Thailand and Vietnam and sunk them. Although Indonesia has sunk illegal fishing boast before, the forceful manner in which the policy is being pursued has raised concerns in the region.
The challenge for the government under this president is how to manage complex regional or international issues when the leadership tends to see things in simple terms and is more concerned with domestic matters.
Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi raised eyebrows by initially suggesting that Indonesia would reduce its international engagement when she meant it would continue. Jokowi has made it plain that he is less interested than his predecessor in joining the international conference circuit – he probably won’t be attending the World Economic Forum in Davos.
However, the focus on domestic interests is not mutually exclusive from the projection of values and responsibilities of importance to the region and beyond. Indonesia’s assertive maritime policy could be couched in rules-based terms that would greatly help the rest of ASEAN persuade China to observe international law in the South China Sea.
Much of the initial dissonance in foreign policy is likely dissipate once the administration settles down. It seems clear that Jokowi himself will not be the globetrotting pontificator that Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono aspired to be. That doesn’t mean that issues of importance such as democracy, climate change and respect for international law need to be pushed down table. But it does mean that the President will need to identify good spokespeople and envoys to do the messaging, and there is no shortage of capable former officials and diplomats to fill this role. Popular as he is, Jokowi needs to be confident in the ability of others to communicate his policies.
On the domestic front, Jokowi has disappointed many liberals in his camp with a hesitant reaction to human rights abuse. It took Jokowi two weeks to announce a formal investigation into the shooting of five civilians in the central highlands of Papua last month. There have already been anachronistic references to a return to the army’s role in stimulating development at the village level, and indications of a much larger defence budget. Meanwhile, the international community is reeling from the President’s blunt refusal to offer clemency to five foreigners convicted of drug smuggling who were executed by firing squad on 19 January.
From what we have already seen, Jokowi’s preference is for cautious, conservative decision-making. Perhaps this is something of a throw back to the style of politics practiced by Soeharto at the height of his power in the 1980s. Like Soeharto, Jokowi is schooled in the homespun wisdom of the Javanese culture, so we can expect careful consideration of his actions and as much as possible pushed from behind, as captured by the phrase Soeharto made popular ‘Tut Wuri Handayani’ – to provide moral leadership from the rear.
Events in and around the Presidential palace for the last three months have generated some mild confusion and concern. The Mr. Clean image dented by the appointment of an allegedly corrupt police chief; the Man of the People image corroded by the choice of close aides associated with a conservative security mindset. It would be a real pity if the direct, unambiguous style of his campaign becomes occluded by the shadowy, ambiguous characteristics of Javanese power play.
Michael Vatikiotis is Asia Regional Director for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.