All said and done, Jokowi still Indonesia’s best bet in this week’s election
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All said and done, Jokowi still Indonesia’s best bet in this week’s election

WHEN Joko Widodo was first a candidate for Indonesia’s presidency five years ago, one might have looked to his successful career in local government for clues as to how he would lead Southeast Asia’s biggest economy.

When he was mayor of Surakarta city and governor of Jakarta, Jokowi — as he’s known in Indonesia — took political risks to combat corruption and improve public services. Many hoped that the reformist brand of populism he pursued in these regions would be a blueprint for his presidency.

That track record turned out to be an imperfect guide to the sort of president Jokowi would be. Almost as soon as he was sworn in, Jokowi began to disappoint the reformist voters who backed him in the 2014 election. He spent little of his political capital on addressing past human rights abuses and reducing the corruption that pervades state institutions.

But he has earnt praise for getting badly-needed infrastructure projects up and running and expanding the social safety net, although his policy agenda is often criticised for reinforcing the statist, protectionist tendencies that have long held back Indonesia’s growth potential.

SEE ALSO: Jokowi bets on an infrastructure boom

It’s tempting to dismiss Jokowi as having become a creature of the system. While there’s truth in that, Jokowi remains a sort of outsider.

As he rose to national prominence after becoming governor of Jakarta in 2012, many within Indonesia’s elite resented the emergence of a politician who they saw as a provincial upstart. For his part, Jokowi has kept himself somewhat aloof from the powerbrokers he cuts deals with every day, distinguishing himself from his predecessors by being the first elected president who does not control a political party.

He also hasn’t cultivated and promoted a class of cronies, at least to the extent that many Indonesian politicians typically do, choosing to maintain ad hoc and mutually expedient alliances with the small group of fixers, financiers and enforcers that surround him.


About 100,000 people filled Jakarta’s main stadium on April 13 for a huge rally in support of Indonesian president Joko Widodo, just days ahead of the biggest-ever elections in the world’s number-three democracy. Source: Handout / JOKOWI NATIONAL CAMPAIGN TEAM / AFP

He has seemed content to not put down roots in the political system. His leadership is characterised by a constant effort to play different elite factions off against each other, not allowing any one faction to dominate the others, or to overly dominate him. Political parties, the military, Islamic organisations and the police force have all received the ‘Jokowi treatment’: being given favours — or the cold shoulder — depending on how useful they are to the President in the political stoush of the moment.

SEE ALSO: Indonesia presidential polls marred by fake news crisis

The result is a governing style marked by cutting deals with those whose support is electorally beneficial and a sometimes ruthless approach to dealing with recalcitrants. The recent disruption of anti-Jokowi protests, and a series of legal cases against anti-government activists, suggests that the Jokowi government is not above resorting to hard-knuckle tactics and legal harassment to reinforce the President’s electoral position.

The question, then, is what Jokowi wants to use his power for, given that institutional reform and human rights languish in the too-hard basket. The answer is to be found in the high-profile infrastructure projects the President inspects and inaugurates nearly every day, and in the health care and cash transfer cards that Indonesians now carry in their wallets. These infrastructure and social welfare programs are being implemented imperfectly, but few could dispute that ‘Jokowinomics’ is getting results. This, above all else, is where Jokowi sees himself leaving a legacy.

Voters have responded appreciatively. Opinion polls, which are pretty reliable in Indonesia, suggest that on Wednesday he will beat his opponent Prabowo Subianto, the former special forces officer whom he defeated in the 2014 presidential election. Those familiar with Jokowi’s thinking say he is hellbent on achieving a landslide victory, like his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono did when he was re-elected with over 60 per cent of the vote in 2009.

Jokowi is unlikely to be that lucky. A last-minute scare campaign from religious conservatives, who have long sought to sell Muslim voters on the idea that the President is hostile to Islam, will likely cost Jokowi some votes. So will a small but growing movement of progressive voters refusing to vote at all out of disgust with Jokowi’s broken promises of reform.

Even allowing for these factors, a victory for Prabowo looks unlikely. That is a good thing for Indonesia and its neighbours. For all his shortcomings, Jokowi is a practical and predictable politician. Prabowo, on the other hand, is an authoritarian ideologue with a volatile personality. When faced with domestic political trouble or a diplomatic crisis, he could well fall back on the demagogic nationalist appeals that are his trademark.


Joko Widodo gestures to supporters during his final campaign rally in Jakarta. Source: Handout / JOKOWI NATIONAL CAMPAIGN TEAM / AFP

Australia and the world, then, should look upon Jokowi’s re-election as the better outcome, something that would lock in stability, pragmatism, and predictability on the economy and foreign relations.

SEE ALSO: Indonesia: Superficial presidential debates reveal major flaw in local politics

The atmosphere of polarisation between the Jokowi and Prabowo camps that has pervaded Indonesian politics since 2014 would also fade somewhat as Prabowo’s party allies seek to cut deals with Jokowi in exchange for representation in the ministry, and the access to the spoils of government that accompanies it.

Still, there are downsides to Jokowi seeing a good result on Wednesday as a vindication of his developmentalist policies and hard-nosed political tactics. Determined to leave an economic legacy, Jokowi will understandably be driven by an impulse to centralise more political authority in his own hands. The central question for the next five years, then, is how much Jokowi is willing to sidestep democratic norms to get there.

By Liam Gammon, a research scholar in the Department of Political and Social Change, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University and editor of the ANU’s New Mandala website. He is also a member of the East Asia Forum Editorial Board.