Heading into battle – The Edge Review

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Supporters of Joko Widodo handout flowers to passers-by in downtown Jakarta on October 15 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Supporters of Joko Widodo handout flowers to passers-by in downtown Jakarta on October 15 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Indonesia’s populist incoming president faces two monumental challenges: mastering the economy and fighting off his political foes

JAKARTA – Ahead of taking office as Indonesia’s next president on October 20, Joko Widodo has been given an unsolicited crash course in the country’s dirty politics.

Defeated presidential rival Prabowo Subianto is still seething and has shown both the money and the manpower to use parliament to undermine Jokowi, as the incoming president is popularly known.

Outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has left a layer of grease for Joko on his office floor after refusing to cut Indonesia’s mammoth fuel subsidy in his final budget and free up money that Joko wants to spend on economy-boosting infrastructure.

The euphoria at Joko’s election in July – the climax of a meteoric nine-year ascent from furniture dealer to provincial mayor and then Jakarta governor – is fading fast. The softly spoken new president must address not just slowing economic growth, shrinking commodity prices and antiquated infrastructure, but also barbs and obstacles in parliament from Prabowo’s defiant, surly opposition coalition.

“We realise we have many tasks ahead of us,” said Hasto Kristyanto, a member of Joko’s small “transition team” that has been working in downtown Jakarta since July.

Hasto, thought to be a contender for a cabinet job, is a senior member of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which backed Joko’s presidential campaign. Talking to The Edge Review, he pushed back against suggestions that Joko is working under the shadow of PDI-P leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, describing him as tougher than his affable, man-of-the-people persona suggests.

“In practice Jokowi is very strong, he has the energy to fight,” Hasto said. “A lot of people who don’t know him underestimate his leadership. As president, he has the people behind him and he will grow in power after he takes office.”

Joko will need to muster all his resilience and perhaps some unheralded cunning if he is to govern effectively. The multi-party coalition headed by Prabowo – who refused to concede defeat in July’s election and took an appeal to the Constitutional Court – will dominate parliament after recently winning the chairs of Indonesia’s two national assemblies.

Only this week Prabowo sought to scupper Joko’s inauguration, calling for an investigation into over allegations that Joko – who has a reputation as one of Indonesia’s most honest politicians – was linked to dodgy procurement deals during his seven years as mayor of his hometown, Solo, and then two years as governor of Jakarta. Indonesia’s anti-corruption commission this week dismissed the allegations as baseless.

In another irony, Prabowo’s coalition in parliament recently voted to abolish direct elections for local government heads. That move aims to rid Indonesia of the democratic system that gave Joko his start in politics back in 2005.

“As the first presidential frontrunner in Indonesian history not to originate from the country’s conventional elite, Jokowi embodied the desire of ordinary voters to be ruled by one of their own,” wrote academic Marcus Mietzner in the latest issue of Journal of Democracy.

It seems Prabowo wants to reverse the course of history, a vehemence perhaps driven by perceived betrayal. Prabowo and his tycoon brother Hashim backed Joko in the 2012 Jakarta governorship race, and the wealthy brothers say Joko promised them he would serve his full term as Jakarta Governor until 2017. But last March Joko agreed to Megawati’s request to be the party’s presidential candidate. That Prabowo was Megawati’s vice-presidential candidate during her failed election bid in 2009 can only have added to the burn.

Prabowo’s opposition coalition controls more than 60 per cent of parliamentary seats, enough to block some reforms, and remains intact despite widespread predictions that Joko could dissolve it by offering cabinet jobs to party hacks.

Joko has said that at least half the jobs would go to technocrats from outside the party system but has delayed announcing his cabinet. So far, parties thought likely to jump ship from Prabowo’s side – such as Golkar, the party of Vice President-elect Jusuf Kalla – are staying put.

That could change in the coming weeks as Joko beds down in office. “We are talking to PPP [the United Development Party] and to Golkar,” Hasto said, discussing possible cabinet jobs. “I would expect Jokowi to announce his cabinet within a week of his inauguration.”

For now, Joko seems to be moving carefully, trying to get support for the pivotal but tricky cut in fuel subsidies. This week he met with parliamentary leaders and Aburizal Bakrie, the billionaire chairman of Golkar, and later said he had support for his plan.

Cheap fuel is popular with the car-owning middle classes, but diverts cash needed for improving roads and power generation infrastructure that could help Indonesia boost manufacturing and modernize an economy still reliant on commodity exports.

That said, tin and copper miners, oil palm growers and rubber makers could do with better roads and ports too. Aziz Pane, Chairman of the Indonesia Tyre Manufacturers Association, laments that poor roads and unreliable power supply have seen rubber processing plants relocate to Malaysia.

Boosting infrastructure could spur more manufacturing investment and in turn mean more jobs – but doing it means cutting through a mass of legal and policy tangles and will require guile if Joko is to win the confrontation with Prabowo’s belligerent opposition.

“There are many things that can be improved, such as business investment climate and regulations [and] export-oriented business incentives which can be directly implemented by the new government without parliament consultation,” said Nugroho Wienarto, Executive Director of the Center for Public Policy Transformation, raising the prospect that Joko will sidestep Prabowo’s parliamentary majority where possible.

Joko has said he wants Indonesia’s economy, the world’s 10th biggest by some rankings, to grow at 7 per cent per year, up from 5 per cent now. Indonesia’s per capita income tripled between 2004 and 2012, mostly on the back of a pre-2009 commodity boom, meaning a growing middle class but also widening inequality. With millions of new entrants to the job market each year, Indonesia needs at least 7 per cent growth to ensure jobs for so many potentially volatile youth.

For Joko to steer Indonesia onto such a path would be achievement enough, to do it while avoiding the political knives at his back would be truly extraordinary.

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