Indonesia's Widodo masters the politics, but reform agenda fades

JAKARTA (Reuters) - As he heads toward the end of his second year as Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo has never looked stronger: a crowd of political parties backs him, he is riding high in opinion polls and the economy is beginning to bounce off the bottom.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo salutes during celebrations for Indonesia's 71st Independence Day at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta, Indonesia August 17, 2016. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside/File Photo

After a terrible first year when the rupiah currency plummeted and critics questioned his ability to govern, aides and politicians close to Widodo told Reuters he now feels firmly in control and is already considering re-election in 2019.

But Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, appears to have managed his recovery by soft-pedalling on the political and economic reforms that he had promised in the world’s fourth-most populous nation when he stood for election in 2014.

Instead, he has concentrated on building alliances to bolster his authority, an echo of former strongman Suharto, whose mastery of political dealmaking kept him in power for more than three decades.

“He’s turning into a new Suharto,” said one senior official, pointing to the “disciplined, cool-headed calculation” of a cabinet reshuffle in July in which Widodo handed positions to parties across the political spectrum.

Presidential spokesman Johan Budi said Widodo was “not yet thinking” about the 2019 election. “He is focused on this period and on working for the prosperity of the people,” Budi said.

Analysts say Widodo’s political maneuvering probably means he will be less inclined to pursue radical change in Southeast Asia’s largest economy, whose over-dependence on resource exports has been painfully exposed by the recent slump in commodity prices.

That was not in the script when the former furniture salesman, who grew up in a riverside slum of central Java, won the presidency.

The first leader of modern Indonesia not to come from the military or political elite, Widodo was widely expected to shake up the establishment. Supporters said he would root out corruption, promote people based on merit rather than connections and create an environment for investment to flow into the stalling economy.

“Instead of changing the game, as he promised voters, Jokowi has begun to master it,” said Aaron Connelly, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Affairs in Sydney.

Marcus Mietzner, an associate professor at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, added:

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“He has - sadly but correctly - established for himself that these issues will not win or lose elections, so he ignores them.”


Aides said Widodo was hamstrung when he came to office because he did not have a parliamentary majority to push through reforms and because he was held back by former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, the domineering head of his political party, the Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P).

They say that the 55-year-old president is difficult to read, but after several run-ins with Megawati it was clear he had decided to bring the PDI-P to heel and win the backing of other parties.

His big break came in January this year when Golkar, the country’s second-largest party with nearly 15 percent of parliament’s seats, agreed to support Widodo’s coalition.

With last month’s cabinet picks, he drew several parties closer to him, cementing support from about two-thirds of parliament’s members and ensuring that he no longer relied on one party for his political survival.

“These parties have each pushed their own agenda with Jokowi, but he has made sure to get what he needs from them too,” said Eva Kusuma Sundari, a senior PDI-P lawmaker.

After more than a year of being undermined by ministers speaking out of turn and at cross-purposes, there was no doubt that Widodo was asserting his control with the latest reshuffle.

From now on ministers will not be allowed to have a “vision and mission” of their own, he told his new team after their inauguration. “No more going it alone.”


The senior official said that with a recent opinion poll showing popular support for the president at 68 percent, the highest since he took office, and with so much cross-party support, he can now push ahead with difficult economic reforms such as opening up long-protected industries.

However, analysts say that after nearly two years it is still not clear if Widodo favors the free market or protectionism because his policies have been so inconsistent.

“Largely it’s nibbling at the edges, so when people use language like reform, I don’t think it’s appropriate,” said Matthew Busch, a consultant focusing on economic and investment issues in Indonesia.

Aides say that Widodo doesn’t have a grand vision for Indonesia as much as a workmanlike drive to make it function better, which is why he focuses on stability and infrastructure development and sometimes micromanages processes.

Mietzner at the Australian National University said Widodo’s appointment in the reshuffle of Wiranto, a controversial ex-general, as his security chief was evidence that political expediency come first.

Wiranto, army chief when President Suharto quit amid protests in 1998, was indicted by a U.N. panel over the bloodshed surrounding East Timor’s 1999 independence vote. The former general has denied any wrongdoing in East Timor.

“There was no strong reason to appoint Wiranto, yet he proceeded because the move conveniently fit his cabinet calculations,” said Mietzner. “He simply does not care enough about human rights issues to find Wiranto’s selection problematic.”

(This version of the story corrects attribution for Matthew Busch in para 24)

Additional reporting by Fergus Jensen and Kanupriya Kapoor; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan