Great expectations

Ahead of Indonesia's Independence Day on August 17, Indonesian political analyst Yohanes Sulaiman looks at the prospect of reform during recently re-elected President Joko Widodo’s second term

WHY WE WROTE THIS: Because pushing back against Indonesia's entrenched political interests is essential to reform.

Yohanes Sulaiman
August 13, 2019
Great expectations
Candidate Anies Baswedan, a former spokesperson for President Joko Widodo during his presidential campaign, speaks to Widodo in Jakarta, Indonesia, 22 July 2014. Photo: EPA/MAST IRHAM

How will Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s second term differ from the first? That is the million dollar question being asked in the weeks since Widodo’s successful re-election in April, as various politicians and parties jostle for positions in the president’s second-term cabinet, which will be announced after his inauguration in October. 

Widodo, who is popularly-known by the nickname “Jokowi,” arguably needs to take a much bolder approach in his second term if he is to tackle Indonesia’s ills – such as rising radicalism and intolerance in society – as well as hoist economic growth from around 5% annually during his first term to his goal of 7%.

A key early indicator could come as soon as Widodo names his second term ministers: will he look beyond party interests to create a professional or technocratic cabinet that would, in theory at least, focus on economic growth and tackle corruption? Or will he again be constrained by the vested political and economic interests of an elite that has in the past thwarted meaningful reform? 

Unlike Yudhoyono, whose indecisiveness and dynastic ambitions distracted him from going too far in enacting much needed reform, Jokowi declared that he would be willing to make hard choices

Before trying to address those questions, it should first be stressed that the president’s priorities in his second term should be bureaucratic reform, pushing for increased economic growth and, last but not least, curbing growing radicalism.

The early indicators appear positive. On bureaucratic reform, Jokowi has sought an increase in civil servant salaries – with an implicit caveat that the government will in turn expect greater accountability from the country’s mandarins. 

Already there are some early attempts to root out radicalism from the bureaucracy and in higher education – but will this drive continue as Widodo attempts the arguably more challenging task of economic reform and driving Indonesia’s growth upwards?

The precedent set by the one case study available is not encouraging. The only other president who successfully won re-election and completed a full second five-year term was Widodo’s predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. 

SBY, as he is known, was also expected by analysts to take bold actions to reform the economy – not least as he was re-elected in a landslide that, on the surface at least, gave him a huge mandate to act decisively. 

Such expectations, unfortunately, were dashed, as Yudhoyono’s second term was marred by controversies, such as corruption scandals that involved his close associates and higher-ups in his party,  and hampered by the kind of indecisiveness that was the hallmark of his tenure. And despite his landslide re-election win, Yudhoyono was subsequently dogged by the threat of impeachment, further hemming in the president, whose cabinet secretary had to remind opponents that that impeachment required that grave offences – such as treason or corruption – had to have been committed.

Such was Indonesia’s sole experience of a second-term president in the two decades since the fall of dictator Suharto and the establishment of a democratic system of government. 

Whether or not Widodo falls prey to the same stasis as Yudhoyono, he will likely face a repeat of some of the constraints that hampered his own first term – notably the inefficient bureaucracy that proved so hostile that 72% of civil servants voted against him in the recent presidential election. 

Widodo may also face demands, again, from political parties within the governing coalition – and chief among this array of groupings is the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) to which the president belongs but where leadership rests in the hands of Megawati Sukarnoputri, a former president and the daughter of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president and one of the founding fathers.

All parties will expect their people to be at the top table and in turn will likely seek policy changes or reforms that suit their interests. Politics in Indonesia is an expensive business – not least election campaigning – and successful political parties want cabinet positions from which they can channel money to supporters and repay election expenses. 

Widodo may also face pressure from outside, with the opposition potentially either seeking to join the government, as was the case with the Golkar Party, which was originally in the opposition before joining Widodo’s cabinet. Other obstacles could come from those who believed they did not get enough cabinet jobs, or the ministerial portfolio they wanted – both possible if Widodo puts together a technocratic cabinet that is not beholden to political parties. 

On the economic front, there are further echoes of Yudhoyono’s second term. Just as the world was still reeling from the 2007-8 financial crisis as the then-president was winning re-election, Widodo’s second term comes as global economic growth is slowing and the uncertainties coming from growing tensions between the US and China weigh on prospects for developing economies such as Indonesia’s. Not to mention the fact that the commodity boom that fuelled Indonesia’s pre-2009 economic growth has long gone, and as a result, Jokowi has to be willing to make drastic reforms – if he is committed to pushing the Indonesian economy to the 6-7 percent growth he promised.

The early indications are that Widodo will take a different path from Yudhoyono. Unlike Yudhoyono, whose indecisiveness and dynastic ambitions distracted him from going too far in enacting much needed reform, Jokowi declared that he would be willing to make hard choices. He declared that he is finally free from the political burden of trying to get re-elected and therefore now at liberty to push for much-needed reforms, even if these in turn prove unpopular in some quarters. It appears that regardless of any inevitable backlash from vested interests opposed to reforms, Widodo seems determined to push for the reforms he believes are needed to make Indonesia great again – a potential “global maritime fulcrum” – as he put it during his first inauguration in 2014.

But towards the end Widodo’s first term, concerns grew about how the president was dealing with some of his opponents and critics, such as using a controversial presidential decree to ban Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, the local wing of an international group dedicated to re-establishing an Islamic caliphate. 

Widodo was elected in 2014 on a wave of grassroots optimism, as the humble-sounding former mayor and furniture salesman who rose to become Indonesia’s first president from outside the old and well-connected military and economic elite. But the president has arguably brought about a worsening climate for democracy in Indonesia – a country often depicted as Southeast Asia’s most democratic – with one scholar arguing that Widodo has taken an “authoritarian turn” of late. 

Widodo has always been a pragmatist – a politician who wants to win, and who wants to get things done.

Indeed, back in 2014, many of Widodo’s liberal- minded supporters campaigned for the then-governor of Jakarta on the expectation that, if elected, human rights would be a key issue for his government. 

Widodo was framed, in that context, as the opposite of his opponent, the former special forces soldier Prabowo Subianto, who was accused of human rights abuses in the past and was seen as an unpredictable would-be demagogue. 

However, much as Barack Obama proved a disappointment on similar issues, to some Stateside supporters at least, during his two-term presidency of the US, Widodo may in the end be similarly remembered, at least in terms of human rights issues.

Like it or not, human rights has never been a priority for Widodo, whose image as a reformist sympathetic to the pleas of the human rights lobby was, in retrospect, a figment of the collective imagination of his more idealistic supporters.

Rather, Widodo has always been a pragmatist – a politician who wants to win, and who wants to get things done. 

During his first major speech after being re-elected president, given a month ago in Bogor on the outskirts of Jakarta, Widodo spoke of his determination to push for economic growth, a better-skilled workforce, increased investment and a more streamlined bureaucracy – as well as tackling Indonesia’s growing radicalisation and promoting the state ideology, known as pancasila

While this does not mean he is dismissive of human rights – or that he is likely to exacerbate the nascent authoritarian tendencies some noticed toward the end of his first term – it does suggest Widodo will focus on more down-to-earth issues.

Yohanes Sulaiman is a politics and security analyst and lecturer at Universitas Jenderal Achmad Yani in Cimahi, Bandung. 

Read more articles