Can Jokowi be a Transformational President?
Odds may be stacked against him
22 July 2014
By: Brad Nelson

Joko Widodo’s election is an important political moment in Indonesia. It ensures Indonesia remains firmly on the democratic path. Certainly, it gives hope to the masses that a changing of the guard will mean a different kind of politics. It reassures jittery investors, who can trust that Indonesia is still open for business. And this, in turn, can allow for Indonesia’s economy to continue to grow and thrive. Jakarta’s friends in Southeast Asia can rest tight that Indonesia will likely continue to support regional stability and cohesion, particularly via ASEAN.

So it’s a seminal event, sure. But transformational? I’m not so sure. Can Jokowi change the political system? Can he really clean up corruption? Can he transform Indonesia’s “national character,” as he alluded to on the campaign trail?

As a relatively young political outsider with a reputation for getting things done and “clean” politics, Jokowi has generated considerable expectations. The expectation is that he will apply the model of politics and policymaking that seemed to work so well in his prior positions in Solo and Jakarta on a national scale. Much, much easier said than done.

Here’s one example. One of Jokowi’s strengths has been his willingness to pay visits to all sorts of local government offices and businesses, so as to keep them in line and also provide a morale boost. It’s good politics, yes, but also a way to boost the production and development of localities. But as president, he simply doesn’t have the time to do this. He will have to alter his hands-on, personality-driven approach to governing. Will this limit his effectiveness in office? Will this disappoint his supporters and backers? If so, will they abandon the PDI-P and Jokowi in future elections?


That’s not all

Jokowi will have to make deals to put together a political coalition capable of governing. Such deals raise the possibility that Jokowi’s policy preferences, including his wishes for a “cleaner” Indonesia, won’t necessarily be reflected in the ideas and proposals he puts forward. But even if they are, there’s another obstacle.

Jokowi will face a strong opposition led by a formidable leader, Prabowo Subianto, assuming he wants that mantle. This opposition will likely try to undermine his legitimacy, which is already happening, and sink his policies. And plus, there have been questions as to how Prabowo would handle losing the election. He could recede into the night once the election results are certified. But it’s also possible he could try to create instability, making life very difficult for Jokowi. Conceivably, Jokowi could spend the bulk of his time as president putting out brush fires caused by the opposition, and Prabowo in particular, rather than on the goals and objectives he wants to see accomplished.

We must also keep in mind the possibility of in-fighting within the PDI-P. Jokowi’s rise poses a threat to certain factions within the party. In particular, the old guard, party elders and other entrenched interests within the PDI-P are on notice. They see in Jokowi not only the next generation of politicians coming to the forefront of national politics, but a new class intent on shaking up the political status quo, which can be a frightening prospect for many. Jokowi will likely face intra-party battles on various issues that are really about a larger struggle to determine who holds the reins of power in the PDI-P.

Moreover, if Jokowi is serious about reform, he will eventually butt heads with all sorts of people and groups, including personnel within the PDI-P. This is especially the case with respect to corruption, which is endemic in Indonesia, from the top down to the bottom rungs on the political system and on all sides of the political spectrum. For years, political and economic actors, among many others, have been skimming off the top of a host of deals and agreements and transactions. This is how they have acquired and maintained their lot in life, something they want to preserve. Does Jokowi have the balance of power, so to speak, on his side to take on these crooked actors? Or will he be outnumbered? If he is, his pledge to crack down on graft and corruption won’t be any more effective than SBY’s.


Power diffusion

Lastly, Elizabeth Pisani, in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, has made the astute observation that as a way to ensure internal cohesion and unity Indonesia has embarked on a massive decentralization project over the last 13 years, giving increasing power to local districts at the expense of the provinces and the national government.

An evolutionary by-product of this power diffusion is that the political process has become candidate-driven and fragmented, as citizens “spread their votes broadly across parties with no shared policy platforms.” This, in turn, has led to fractured parliaments in Jakarta, which have only made it more difficult for Indonesian presidents and their staff to craft, galvanize support for and implement policy. It is into this political context that Jokowi enters this October.

In sum, I’m not downplaying Jokowi’s election or suggesting that Jokowi can’t be a good president. He can. But we need to be realistic about his chances to be a transformational figure in Indonesian politics. Just because he’s president doesn’t mean he has a clear ride to democratically impose his vision on the country. He’s going to have to work at it, and he will likely need some luck on his side.


Brad Nelson is president and co-founder of Center for World Conflict and Peace, a research organization, and an adjunct professor of international relations at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, Illinois.

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