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Commentary: Jokowi, an upstart, 'a sort of outsider' who employs hard-nosed tactics

Still, the president remains Indonesia’s best bet in this week’s election, says the Australian National University’s Liam Gammon.

Commentary: Jokowi, an upstart, 'a sort of outsider' who employs hard-nosed tactics

File photo of Indonesian President Joko Widodo taking a picture with a group of supporters. (Photo: AFP)

SYDNEY: 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 earned 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.

READ: Indonesia searches for that elusive broad-based growth, a commentary


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 power brokers he cuts deals with every day, distinguishing himself from his predecessors by being the first elected president who does not control a political party.

Supporters throw balloons as they attend a campaign rally of Indonesia's presidential candidate for the next general election Joko Widodo at a stadium in Serang, Banten province, Indonesia, Mar 24, 2019. (Photo: Reuters/Willy Kurniawan)

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

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.


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, suggest 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.

A heavy equipment as seen at the new Depok-Serpong highway road outskirt of Jakarta, Indonesia, April 18, 2018. Picture taken April 18, 2018. File photo: REUTERS/Beawiharta)


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.

READ: The mind-boggling challenge of Indonesia’s election logistics, a commentary

Those familiar with Jokowi’s thinking say he is hell-bent 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.

READ: Politics, not policies, to determine the re-run race between Prabowo and Jokowi, a commentary

Prabowo, on the other hand, is an 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.

FILE PHOTO: Indonesia's presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto speaks during a campaign rally with his running mate Sandiaga Uno at Gelora Bung Karno Main Stadium in Jakarta, Indonesia, April 7, 2019. (Photo: Reuters/Willy Kurniawan)


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.

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.

Liam Gammon is 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. This commentary first appeared in East Asia Forum.

Source: CNA/sl


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