Indonesian president makes shaky start with cabinet of compromises

The challenges facing Indonesia’s new president Joko Widodo are clearly reflected in the choices in his first cabinet. EPA/Mast Irham

Indonesia’s new president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo faces three major challenges as he begins his five-year term. The compromise cabinet he has announced clearly reflects this.

The first challenge is obvious. Jokowi’s defeated rival, former general Prabowo Subianto, controls over 60% of Indonesia’s legislature through his Red and White Coalition. He is determined to bring down Jokowi and roll back Indonesia’s democratic transition – and he is supported by leading members of the political and business elites. Jokowi will struggle to get the votes he needs for his reformist agenda to be passed into law.

The second challenge is internal. The members of Jokowi’s party, PDI-P, do not all not share the reformist or good governance credentials that got him elected. Like the other major parties, it has a tawdry record of corruption, with former legislators jailed or under investigation.

PDI-P is also the dynastic party of the family of Indonesia’s first president, Soekarno, and is ruled with an iron hand by his daughter Megawati Soekarnoputri – herself a former president. Although never notable for an interest in policy, Megawati is certainly adept at traditional patrimonial politics.

Jokowi must negotiate any major decision with his party boss, not least because PDI-P has the plurality in the legislature that will form the foundation of any deal he puts together to get laws passed. The need to keep Megawati onside will inevitably compromise his idealistic policy objectives.

The third challenge arises from the high hopes for reform invested in Jokowi. He owes much of his 6% victory margin in July’s presidential poll to civil society volunteers and social media networks. They were inspired by his good governance agenda and, in particular, promises to prioritise anti-corruption efforts, deliver better support for the poor, do something about decaying infrastructure, clean up Indonesia’s clunky bureaucracy and defend human rights.

And they want him to do all this quickly – unlike his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is now widely seen as a ditherer.

Public expectations are very high that Jokowi will deliver real change without delay. If the challenges presented by Prabowo and Megawati make this difficult, then Jokowi, like US president Barack Obama, could face a backlash from his own support base. The compromises necessary to manage Prabowo’s aggressive opposition in the legislature and pressure from Megawati to advance her clique thus risk undermining the very basis of Jokowi’s success.

The good news

Jokowi became president because of his ability to directly tap popular support, sidestepping the tiny political and business elite who have always run Indonesia. If he loses public confidence, this provincial outsider would find himself exposed to that same cut-throat elite. Jokowi has to become an expert juggler if he is to survive.

This is clear from the composition of his “working cabinet”. It is impressive in some respects. For example, it contains eight women – the largest number ever in an Indonesian cabinet.

Australia should not expect special treatment from new Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi. EPA/Mast Irham

Perhaps the most significant appointment for Australia is the foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, a professional diplomat who is seen as highly competent. The first woman to hold this position, she, like Marty Natalegawa before her, is a genuine technocrat. This suggests Jokowi – who won office by paying close attention to domestic issues, not international affairs – may rely on her advice.

Like Natalegawa, who studied in Canberra, Marsudi has spent time here, being posted to Canberra in the 1990s during bilateral tensions over the Dili massacre. However, most of her career has focused on the European Union and America. Australia cannot expect special treatment from her, particularly given Jokowi has already flagged that he is as unhappy about Australia’s asylum seeker policy as was Yudhoyono.

Jokowi has also chosen some well-regarded technocrats, such as educational reformer Anies Basweden in the culture and primary and secondary education portfolio, and Indroyono Susilo, former executive with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, as co-ordinating minister for maritime affairs. These appointments are a big step forward but they are not the full story.

The bad news

In fact, the cabinet makes so many concessions to the difficult political circumstances Jokowi faces that his reformist supporters are feeling distinctly underwhelmed.

In some respects, this is Jokowi’s own fault. Indonesia’s system is similar to that of the United States. The president is elected independently of the legislature and selects the cabinet from outside it. This gives him freedom – in theory – to appoint experts who have no political affiliation.

During the campaign Jokowi repeatedly said he wanted a cabinet dominated by technocrats, not party hacks. He said he would not simply dole out seats to nominees of the parties supporting him, as his predecessors did in their “rainbow coalition” cabinets. He even authorised a Facebook poll to get public feedback on potential appointees.

Many Indonesians are now criticising the new cabinet as just more of the same. The counts vary, but at least 15 of the 34 ministers are there because of their party affiliations, while others are included because of their political influence. The most blatant example of both is Puan Maharani, Megawati’s daughter and PDI-P heir apparent. Co-ordinating ministries are traditionally political power bases and, although she is often described as as inexperienced and arrogant, Maharani has been given the new co-ordinating ministry of human development and culture.

Ryamizard Ryacudu’s appointment as defence minister is one of the biggest concerns for the proponents of reform. EPA/Mast Irham

PDI-P also secured home affairs (Tjahjo Kumolo) and law and human rights (Yasona H. Laoly). The appointment of a former army chief, General Ryamizard Ryacudu, as defence minister is seen as a PDI-P victory too. He is very close to Megawati, who backed him strongly when she was president.

Ryacudu’s appointment is one of the biggest concerns for the proponents of reform. This will be the first time in 15 years that a general has been defence minister and he has been linked to allegations of human rights violations in Papua. A question mark now hangs over Jokowi’s repeated campaign promises to bring the perpetrators of such abuses to justice.

Other parties in Jokowi’s alliance did well too. Another military man, former navy chief Tedjo Edhy Purdijanto of the National Democratic Party (NasDem), was awarded the crucial and powerful co-ordinating ministry for political, legal and security affairs. The NasDems also picked up the ministries of the environment and forestry (Siti Nurbaya) and agrarian affairs and spatial planning (Ferry Musyidan Baldan).

Other alliance parties PKB and Hanura are represented as well. PKB secured manpower (Hanif Dhakiri), villages, disadvantaged regions and transmigration (Marwan Jafar), and youth and sports (Imam Nahrawi), while Hanura won industry (Saleh Husin).

Yuddy Chrisnandi also picked up state apparatus reform for Hanura, despite concerns that he lacks the experience necessary for this crucial portfolio, where much has been left unfinished by Yudhoyono. This could be problematic for Jokowi given his promises to fix Indonesia’s notorious bureaucracy.

The power plays

Suggestions that Jokowi might also seek to win over parties from Prabowo’s camp proved partly accurate, with Lukman Hakim Saefuddin (a former Yudhoyono minister) retaining religious affairs. His party, PPP, the largest Islamic party, is now internally divided but seems to be drifting from Prabowo to Jokowi.

Another example of this tactic might be new trade minister Rahmat Gobel, the local CEO of Panasonic and one of several business figures in the cabinet. Gobel is known to be close to Aburizal Bakrie, the tycoon who heads Golkar, the party through which Soeharto once ruled and the largest party in Prabowo’s camp.

The cabinet manoeuvres include overtures to allies of Prabowo Subianto. EPA/Adi Weda

Bakrie’s business empire has been shaky for some time. Facing allegations of corruption, it was propped up by government protection under Yudhoyono. Some observers think appointing Gobel may be one way for Jokowi to get influence with Bakrie and thus weaken Prabowo.

More concerning, however, is the choice of Rini Soemarno, former head of major auto company Astra, as minister for state-owned enterprises. Jokowi ran his first cut of the cabinet past Indonesia’s independent Corruption Eradication Commission and the Financial Transactions Reports Agency. Their recommendations led him to drop eight names. Soemarno has a controversial business record,and her name is said to have been on the commission’s warning list, as she was questioned last year in relation to a major bank liquidity credits scandal. Investigations are ongoing.

However, Soemarno was Megawati’s industry and trade minister and is part of her inner circle, so she made the final cabinet cut despite the warnings. On any reading, her appointment does not sit well with the Jokowi administration’s claims to be clean, transparent and committed to good governance.

It would be an overstatement to say say that Jokowi has failed his first test as president. He finds himself in a very tight spot, with little room to manoeuvre and under enormous pressure from both friends (Megawati) and enemies (Prabowo). Nevertheless, his cabinet has been received without much enthusiasm; too many ministers are in it for the wrong reasons.

Jokowi will have to do a lot better, very soon, if he is to keep the confidence of the public on which he depends so heavily.

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