MUMBAI(Reuters Breakingviews) - There are cruel limits to how much and how fast a nation can change. The constraints are vividly illustrated in the colourful journey of Indonesia’s Joko Widodo.
There were high hopes for Jokowi, as the furniture-seller- turned president is popularly known. When he swept to power on the national stage in 2014, enthusiasts expected an end to the Southeast Asian nation’s endemic corruption and a fresh push for much-needed economic reforms. The results so far have been disappointing, as Ben Bland describes, in “Man of Contradictions”, the first English language political biography of the incumbent leader.
Bland tracks Widodo’s rise, from humble beginnings to governor of Jakarta to twice-elected president of a nation of about 270 million people. The former Financial Times journalist, now a policy analyst at the Lowy Institute, has followed the country for two decades and interviewed Widodo many times. The result is an often critical profile of the man who has come to resemble rather than fight the country’s entrenched oligarchy.
Bland gives a dispassionate and damning description of Widodo’s failings as young democracy’s guardian. A man admired for his clean reputation weakened the anti-corruption body. He made digs at nepotism but ended up with his own nascent political dynasty. He cut loose a close ally, an ethnic Chinese and devout Christian, to appease hard-line Muslims in a nation usually held up as a beacon of pluralism in the Muslim world. And he has deployed police to target his critics on an increasingly systematic basis.
The most stinging criticism may be Jokowi’s lack of thoughtful focus on policymaking. He won popular support by pursuing incremental changes and by being a “man of action” and “hard-hat” politician ready to get to work. As he rose through the political ranks, he took everyone from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to then-London mayor Boris Johnson on spot checks in slums and beyond. The problem, Bland says, is that Widodo failed to change his style of leadership enough to meet the more complex challenges of national government.
The book is balanced, taking note of some economic successes. Widodo has grown the infrastructure budget, cut costly fuel subsidies, and trimmed enough red tape to significantly improve the country’s ranking in the global Ease of Doing Business index. He brought Sri Mulyani Indrawati, a respected economist, back from the World Bank and made her finance minister again.
But overall Bland depicts a man lacking a grand vision for the economy and who makes important decisions on a whim. A notable example given is a costly plan to build a new national capital in the forests of East Kalimantan, 1300 kilometres away from Jakarta.
Then there are protectionist instincts and prioritisation of state-owned entities. He has pushed ahead with the nationalisation of foreign-developed projects, including the Grasberg gold and copper mine, formerly controlled by Freeport McMoRan, as well a gas block formerly owned by France’s Total. Foreign investors have been deterred by this approach but Bland argues that the president does have time for international friends with benefits, a domain where the Chinese rule.
Is the problem personal or institutional? Both, says Bland. In Indonesia, it is easier to befriend powerful political opponents than to fight them. Widodo appointed his arch-rival and challenger in last year’s presidential election as defence minister, for example. And many Indonesians still see economic liberalism as a tool of colonial oppression. Indeed, Bland notes that the plethora of political parties are not easily divided by ideology or policy, and most of them want a bigger role for the state.
Widodo’s failure to live up to expectations so far, and the many contradictions acknowledged in the book’s title, might frustrate readers looking for a clear and simple narrative. But Bland has done well not to try to overly simplify a complex nation composed of thousands of islands. He provides plenty of anecdotes, though a deeper analysis of economic policies would have provided more evidence for assessing the president’s success and failures.
The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the cracks in Widodo’s leadership, Bland concludes, making it even harder to focus on bright spots of his presidency. Indonesia already estimates the health crisis has wiped out over a decade of progress in reducing poverty. But Widodo still has four more years in power and can’t seek re-election under Indonesia’s two term limit. That still leaves plenty of political capital to spend – and time to add a more flattering chapter to a sharp account of his achievements.
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