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Watch your back!

Indonesia’s new president goes through a rough patch; it could last a while

Jan 31st 2015 | From the print edition of The Economist Jan 15th 2015

Timekeeper

IN POLITICS the world over it is often not the other side you have to worry about, but your own. In October Joko Widodo was inaugurated as Indonesia’s president, with parliament controlled by an opposition of bad losers threatening to thwart all his plans. Yet by this week, when Jokowi, as he is known, marked 100 days in office, his biggest headaches were caused by his own party, the PDI-P. It has stoked a confrontation between the notoriously corrupt police force and a popular anti-corruption body. The row risks blunting the great political weapon Jokowi has so far wielded to cow friend and foe alike: his personal popularity.

At the centre of it is Budi Gunawan. The policeman had been under a cloud since 2010 because his bank balance bulged suspiciously for a humble cop’s. But on January 9th Jokowi nominated him as chief of police. Days later he was named a suspect by the independent anti-corruption commission, known as the KPK. The opposition-dominated parliament scented a chance to embarrass the president and endorsed the nomination anyway. Jokowi suspended but did not revoke Mr Budi’s appointment. Then, on January 23rd, the police arrested a KPK commissioner, Bambang Widjojanto, on flimsy-looking charges of encouraging perjury in 2010, when he was a campaigning private lawyer. He has resigned. To many, the arrest seemed like retaliation by the police. The three other KPK commissioners are also under investigation. The KPK needs a quorum of three to function, so it risks paralysis. But rather than protect the KPK, Jokowi stayed neutral, saying no institution was above the law, and handed the issue to an independent nine-member panel, which on January 28th recommended he ditch Mr Budi.

This seemed to offer the president a face-saving way out. But by then serious harm had been done to his public image. First, the affair undermines faith in his commitment to wiping out corruption. Like his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, in other ways his polar opposite, Jokowi is respected as honest and a doughty fighter against graft. Many Indonesians know from personal experience that the police cannot be trusted. The KPK, on the other hand, has a good reputation, largely earned under Mr Yudhoyono, during whose tenure it brought down some lofty figures. In 2009, however, it also found itself under attack by the police, prompting demonstrations by its supporters.

Mr Budi’s appointment also mocked hopes that Jokowi would make promotions on merit. A businessman from a humble background, Jokowi worked his way to power through winning direct elections, first as mayor of his Javanese hometown, Solo, then as governor of the capital, Jakarta. He promised a break from the old politics of patronage and cronyism. The promise was already dented by the cabinet he named. Almost half the posts went to political allies rather than to talented technocrats. Mr Budi is very close to Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of Indonesia’s independence leader, a former president and leader of the PDI-P. His promotion seemed a case of jobs for the boys.

It also suggested that Jokowi is not his own boss, and that Ms Megawati still calls the important shots. Part of Jokowi’s appeal—that he is a political outsider—can also appear a weakness, making him look dependent on the PDI-P’s machinery and easily outmanoeuvred by grandees such as Ms Megawati, Surya Paloh, head of a party in his coalition, and even his own vice-president, Jusuf Kalla, who held the same job in Mr Yudhoyono’s first term. The PDI-P, for its part, is disgruntled that Jokowi is not more of a loyalist. The complaints prompting police action against Mr Bambang and the other KPK commissioners were made by party stalwarts. Some are even muttering about impeaching the president.

Meanwhile, Jokowi has also been disappointing some of the many foreign governments that welcomed his election victory last year over Prabowo Subianto, a former general and avowed economic nationalist. He has rejected appeals for clemency for 64 drug smugglers and manufacturers sentenced to death. Six, including five foreigners, were executed by firing squad on January 17th. Two of their governments—Brazil’s and the Netherlands’—withdrew their ambassadors from Jakarta in protest. Among those still on death row are Australian, British and Chinese citizens. And the way Jokowi has chosen to rid Indonesian waters of the scourge of poaching by foreign fishermen—blowing up their vessels—has also caused some concern.

At home, these hardline policies are popular. Mr Jokowi appealed to voters not as a soft-centred liberal but as a no-nonsense small-town mayor who gets things done. And that is another reason why his deliberate, letter-of-the-law handling of the crisis over the KPK is so damaging.

It is also distracting attention from his rapid achievement of some economic-policy goals: starting the distribution of smartcards to poor Indonesians, entitling them to free health care and education, and removing fuel subsidies. Greatly helped by the plunge in the oil price, this last measure has freed billions of dollars for investment in infrastructure and social welfare. Environmentalists also give the president grudging credit for making a start on another crying need: affording better protection to Indonesia’s forests.

Change you can believe in

The activists who helped propel Jokowi to power, however, hoped for much more than an honest president with some good policies. They saw in his election victory the final, critical step in Indonesia’s evolution from the 32-year Suharto dictatorship, which ended only in 1998, into a true democracy. As the first president from outside an elite that had kept control of most levers of power even as the dictatorship was dismantled, he was expected to be a transforming leader. That was always a lot to ask. And it is still far too early to give up a more modest hope: that Jokowi will change Indonesian politics more than it changes him.

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