Challenges for Indonesia’s new leader start with elite interests

Joko Widodo won Indonesia’s presidential election but that is just the start of his challenges. AAP/Eka Nickmatulhuda

True democracy works when people can expect their politicians to deliver their popular demands. In Indonesia’s oligarchic political system, most people don’t trust their representatives and officials. They are often disillusioned by democracy.

President-elect Joko Widodo’s rise in politics may serve as a corrective factor for the state of Indonesian democracy. His victory was supported by commoners who, instead of expecting the usual bribes from political parties in exchange for their votes, campaigned, donated money and crowd-sourced the monitoring of vote tabulation.

His opponent, Prabowo Subianto, is challenging the election result in the Constitutional Court. But many analysts say his efforts will be futile.

Now Jokowi, as Widodo is universally known, faces voters’ high expectations for him to lead a populist government and tackle Indonesia’s socioeconomic problems. But to give what people expect of him, Jokowi would have to confront Indonesia’s political elites within and outside his coalition.

Jokowi’s populist approach

Jokowi is the first president-elect to emerge from outside the political elite. He has no military background nor ties with influential families. Growing up in a riverbank slum, he started out as a furniture seller and began his political career less than 10 years ago.

In 2005 he was elected Mayor of the Central Java town Solo. He emerged on the political scene as Jakarta governor in 2012. His populist platform powered his ascent from small-town mayor to president-elect.

As mayor of Solo, a city in which 70% of the people work in informal sector as hawkers or traditional market vendors, he managed to provide Solo’s poor with unprecedented public services. He provided free health care and education, assistance for house-upgrading, traditional market renovation and also budget allocations for neighbourhood projects.

Jokowi also introduced mechanisms for public participation in policy processes, including some well-known dialogue over relocating street vendors. He promoted budget transparency and direct communication with the public in general. In his time as governor of Jakarta, Jokowi replicated the populist ways he pioneered in Solo.

His supporters hope that he will bring his way of doing things to the presidential palace. They hope he can overhaul the transactional nature of politics in Indonesian government and transform that in the shape of a professional and reform-minded cabinet.

Indonesia’s socioeconomic problems

It will not be easy to manage people’s expectations of him. The challenges as president of the fourth-most populous democracy in the world are significantly greater than those of governing the nation’s capital.

The most pressing budgetary challenge is the ballooning of fuel subsidies. Discounts on fuel have cost 20% of Indonesia’s national budget, leaving little room to spend on much-needed infrastructure projects.

The lack of good roads, ports and airports has caused logistical problems in Indonesia. It is slow and costly to transport goods. Indonesia’s economy still largely depends on exporting raw materials, which brings with it environmental problems. The combination of the fuel subsidy burden and high logistic costs are a drag on Indonesia’s economic growth.

Indonesia’s growth is projected around 5.3-5.5%. While this is high compared to developed countries, it is lower than Indonesia’s growth rate of 5.8% last year. The last decade produced growth that was relatively stable around 6%.

Rising inequality, a lack of quality education and health care, corruption, a need for bureaucratic reform and a resolution of past human rights abuses are other challenges that Jokowi will have to face as president.

The obstacles of the old politics

Indonesian people voted for Jokowi to tackle these problems. But, as the election has ended, politics is soon returning to the hands of elites.

Jokowi will try to appoint as many professionals as possible to his cabinet. But the elites of the Indonesia Democratic Party of Struggle and its coalition will want to have a say in his leadership. Jokowi’s candidacy was only possible with the “blessing” of the party’s chairwoman, former president Megawati Sukarnoputri. She has expressed the view that Jokowi is an “agent” of his political party.

Jokowi will also face persistent challenges from Prabowo’s camp. Besides his challenge in the Constitutional Court, Prabowo’s coalition is preparing a special committee in the parliament to investigate the election process.

Indonesia has shown increasing political maturity in this year’s legislative and presidential elections. But Prabowo seems to see this as a never-ending battle. This might create problems for Jokowi who needs to secure parliament’s support to implement his policies. To lift fuel subsidies as promised in his campaign, for example, he requires approval from the house.

Jokowi must show that he can answer soaring public expectations by sticking to his populist approach. He must have courage to act as president and to be willing to take on the political elites. Otherwise he will damage the public trust he enjoys, which is what made him president-elect. Worse, Indonesian democracy will remain to benefit only the elite.