Almost a year ago, I wrote a post about Indonesia, referring to it as “Asia’s sleeping giant” and outlining its potential and disappointment. I mentioned that it had elected a new president, Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”), who represented a huge break from the past since he had no connection to the political and military elite that ruled the country.
At the time, Jokowi’s ascendance was hailed by overseas observers and Indonesians as proof that their country had really turned a corner into mature democracy, open politics, and perhaps even a resurgence onto the world stage. Now that he’s been in office for almost a year, how is Jokowi doing?
Jokowi came to office pledging that Indonesia was open for business. Eager to push Indonesia’s economy along and upgrade its substandard infrastructure, he courted foreign investors, touting Indonesia’s daunting size (255 million people, 1.9 million km², an $896 billion economy) and emphasizing the staggering profits investors and entrepreneurs could make there. He’s signed on to an array of big infrastructure projects — roads, ports, dams, power plants, fiberoptic cables, bridges. He’s promised to make life easy for foreign businessmen and do whatever it takes to make sure their investments and business ventures get going smoothly and quickly.
In reality there hasn’t been that much change. Many foreigners are still wary of Indonesia, mindful of its ranking on the World Bank Ease of Doing Business Index (114 out of 189) and its reputation for stifling bureaucracy and procrastination. It can take 9 months to get permits to build new power plants. It’s a far-flung, disunited sort of place: reaching some of the islands in its vast east takes long boat rides, and with the population and economic power concentrated in Java, ignoring them is commonplace — even though it condemns them to poverty.
Jokowi has taken steps to cut through the morass of Indonesian bureaucracy. An avid fan of the Internet, he’s moving more and more government functions online and handing out “smart cards” to make welfare payments and access to medicine and education easier. He always exhorts disgruntled citizens to complain to their government and even to him to get things done. A “one-stop service shop” for investors eliminates a lot of the red tape and hassles they used to face (before it would take 2½ years to open a power plant!). But Indonesia’s bureaucratic culture is deeply entrenched; officials are used to the runaround and lack much initiative for reform. The smart cards were rushed through and have faced various implementation screw-ups. Jokowi is getting increasingly frustrated at the languid pace of reform and might start revamping how the civil service is hired and promoted.
On a similar note, investors are put off by Indonesia’s various restrictions. Eager to play up his nationalist credentials, Jokowi has enforced laws requiring locally made smartphone components, banning exports of unprocessed mineral ore, and restricting immigration. Indonesia’s parliament prefers protectionism, seeing foreigners as thieves plundering precious natural resources. His trade minister, Rachmat Gobel, banned beer in convenience stores and secondhand clothing. Jokowi doesn’t always support these views — he got rid of Gobel last month in a cabinet reshuffle — but a consensus in favor of self-sufficiency in food and a general skepticism towards trade have dampened investor confidence.
Part of Jokowi’s platform was his honesty and track record as governor of Jakarta and mayor of Surakarta in fighting corruption. This was one of the reasons he pushed for more online government service — fewer hands in the trough. But he ran into trouble earlier this year when he appointed Budi Gunawan as police chief even though he had run afoul of the national Corruption Eradication Commission, which accused him of selling positions on the police force. Jokowi defused the situation by picking someone else as police chief… who went ahead and appointed Budi as his deputy. The police then fought back by charging some of the corruption watchdogs with crimes and dropping their investigation into Budi. The incident cost Jokowi a great deal of support and stained his credibility, since the Corruption Eradication Commission is widely popular and respected.
Jokowi’s biggest victory so far might be his cut of the generous fuel subsidies that Indonesia used to offer its citizens. The price of gas rose by 30% starting this year, but the national government gained some $18 billion in its coffers, a valuable aid for promoting infrastructure, education and health reforms. It’s also benefited foreign oil companies and tied the price of oil to the free market. It’s considered a real act of political courage, but Jokowi was able to get away with it thanks to the global slump in oil prices softening the blow for ordinary consumers.
As a mayor and governor mostly focused on local problems, Jokowi wasn’t and isn’t very concerned with foreign affairs, aside from the promotional trips mentioned above. But he has noticeably taken a more aggressive stance overseas in line with his nationalism. To deter foreign fishermen from Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, etc. from fishing in Indonesian waters, the navy has been seizing more of their boats — and blowing them up to send an unequivocal message. More controversially, Jokowi has taken a hard line on drug smuggling, executing smugglers from Brazil, the Netherlands, and Australia, even over diplomatic protests and even though some of them had been unwitting or involuntary drug mules. It fits in with the overall Indonesian narrative of standing up to meddling or pernicious foreigners and bolsters Jokowi’s support, although it’s also harming diplomatic relations (all of the above countries broke them off after the deaths). Jokowi’s also interested in forging a path for Indonesia beyond the narrow confines of Southeast Asia and has played up Third World solidarity rhetoric, although what exactly this might mean remains unclear.
Above all, Jokowi’s presidency remains hamstrung by his political limitations. Although he came from outside Jakarta’s political class, he rose to power by forging an alliance with the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, which is controlled by the impressively named Megawati Sukarnoputri, who is (as her name indicates) the granddaughter of Sukarno, Indonesia’s Founding Father, and sees herself as the natural heir to the throne (even though she’s already been president before). The alliance helped deliver him the votes needed for victory, but put him in Megawati’s debt and left him with a minority in the legislature. Many of his more controversial political appointments — including Budi — were thought to be favors to Megawati and her allies. Megawati also clearly expects Jokowi to be a loyal flunkie; at a party congress, she told him to “toe the party line” and said that the president and vice president must be “the extended hands of the party” and “party functionaries.”
Other forces outside of Jokowi’s control are battering him. The global economy is slowing down, propelled by a slump in the Chinese economy and a crash in demand for commodities. Indonesia depends on commodities, which is why Jokowi is so keen on getting more foreign investment. He wants to shift the national economy to focus more on manufacturing and domestic industry, but the aforementioned labor and trade restrictions make that unappealing for foreigners. He wants to improve Indonesia’s lackluster education and expand its entrepreneurial class, but he has made little progress in this direction. As a result, the Indonesian economy is slowing down — it probably won’t reach 5% this year, which isn’t fast enough growth to keep Indonesia’s booming youth population employed.
Jokowi does not have an easy job. The Indonesian bureaucracy is constipated and inefficient. He doesn’t have enough allies in the national government. Implementing his welfare schemes, anti-corruption campaigns, and open government initiatives will be much harder as president than as mayor of Surakarta. He still takes his famous blusukan (see below video), where he mingles with the masses on the streets, goes shopping in markets, and eats street food, but it’s impractical for the president to get out and see the entire massive archipelago, and he’s now surrounded by dozens of security guards and handlers. He’s still popular with ordinary people (as you can see in the video!), but his popularity is slipping as voters realize the limitations of his campaign promises and foreigners malign his presidency as “a desperate mess.”
I think it’s probably a little too early to pass judgment on how Jokowi is doing, but it’s important to remember what’s really his most important achievement so far: proving that an ordinary guy born on some riverbank in central Java who made his living selling furniture can rise to the pinnacle of Indonesian politics mostly through his charm, honesty, and modesty. It’s a symbolic achievement, not a practical one (it won’t put food in anyone’s stomachs), but it’s helped change the narrative about a country many are dismissive of.
In this way — and in several others — Jokowi resembles Barack Obama. While Obama was a politician and is hardly representative of an ordinary American, he rose to power through his personality, charm, and ability to inspire voters. Obama also likes to get out of the White House and mingle with the common people (albeit usually through TV appearances) and also struggles to get things done in the face of political opposition and personal incompetence. And Obama’s greatest achievement may also be his symbolic identity rather than anything substantial. Here’s to hoping that Jokowi will be able to transcend the political swamp and chart a new course for his country.