After a shaky start, president Joko Widodo has steadied the ship. And with no credible challengers in sight, he’s the prime candidate for re-election in 2019.
When Joko Widodo (Jokowi) became president in 2014, expectations about his impending presidency ranged from enthusiastic optimism to concerns about his inexperience, to a dismissive ‘So what?’ attitude.
While the optimists saw Jokowi’s unconventional rise to the top as a sign of hope for democratic reform in Indonesia, the sceptics feared that his lack of support in parliament and his status as a political outsider would make governance difficult for the new president. Yet others argued that despite Jokowi’s populist appeal as a humble and down-to-earth leader, he would actually be unable to make a difference to Jakarta’s patronage-driven politics and that he would ultimately be just another puppet of predatory oligarchic elites.
Two years on, it seems as if none of the predictions were accurate. The optimists were the first to realise that their expectations had been exaggerated as Jokowi made a range of controversial cabinet appointments, failed to defend the anti-corruption commission in a power struggle with the police, and started a populist war on drugs, which, to the dismay of human rights advocates, included the execution of foreign drug smugglers.
At the same time though, Jokowi did send some positive signals to democracy activists.
For example by pressing parliament to retain direct local elections or by endorsing the organisation of a public symposium about the anti-communist mass killings of 1965 — something his predecessors had always refused to do. His reaction to the annual haze crisis triggered by the large-scale burning of forest in Sumatra and Kalimantan also seemed more decisive than the half-hearted responses of previous administrations. In short, Jokowi did not exactly turn Indonesian politics on its head, but he also did not simply continue business as usual in every policy field.
Where business as usual did unfold, it had not been expected, namely in the president’s relations with parliament. Upon taking office, Jokowi faced a fragmented parliament in which his coalition of four parties only held a minority of seats. Many pundits therefore expected an obstructionist legislature that would seek to undermine Jokowi’s authority wherever possible.
Instead, however, parliament has been strangely acquiescent and rarely challenged the government’s agenda. To achieve this acquiescence, Jokowi used his presidential powers in remarkably adroit fashion, offering positions in state institutions in return for parliamentary support, placating party leaders with financial perks, and using divide-and-rule strategies to exacerbate existing tensions in factionalized parties. By early 2016, three members of the opposition coalition had broken ranks with their leader Prabowo Subianto.
By mid-2016, Jokowi has clearly settled into the presidency. Having tamed the opposition and acquired new allies, he has committed more time and resources to his main policy agenda, the development of Indonesia’s dilapidated infrastructure. He has also paid more attention to international issues than in his first year, trying to show greater assertiveness in dealing with regional challenges. As a consequence, his approval ratings have increased in 2016, after they had suffered in his first year in office.
Jakarta’s established elite has taken note of these developments. Realising that Jokowi is performing well enough to be the prime candidate for re-election in 2019, former opposition parties like Golkar have already begun to position themselves as potential partners for Jokowi in the next presidential election.
Up until then, domestic politics in Indonesia looks set to continue on the familiar pattern of broad political stability without much democratic inspiration. Now that he feels reasonably secure in terms of political support, Jokowi will try to focus his energies on boosting his economic track record in order to shore up public support ahead of the next election. Given that in his first year economic growth was underwhelming and social inequality remained high, Jokowi will need to work on his economic policies if he is to win a second term.
Significantly though, regardless of Jokowi’s performance so far, there is currently no credible challenger in sight who might have the resources to confront him in 2019. His former rival Prabowo has largely disappeared from public view and seems unlikely to come out fighting once again unless Jokowi commits some serious mistakes that would make him vulnerable for political attacks — for example economic mismanagement or corruption.
With national level politics under Jokowi now increasingly similar to those under his predecessor, the more interesting political dynamics in the near future may unfold elsewhere. In particular, the 2017 gubernatorial election in Jakarta will be worth watching as incumbent governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) is seeking to defy the odds and win re-election despite being a Christian ethnic Chinese and taking on Jakarta’s party elite by pledging to run as an independent candidate.
Ahok’s popular appeal has triggered intense debate about the future of party politics in Indonesia and with the polls currently showing a clear lead for the incumbent, the election looks set to provide important insights into the future of electoral campaigning, the balance between popular and oligarchic forces, and the salience of ethnic and religious sentiments among the Indonesian electorate.
Dr Dirk Tomsa is a lecturer in politics at La Trobe University, and will be speaking at a panel in Melbourne on 7 July: Indonesia at the Crossroads.