Jokowi’s supporters are starting to doubt the ‘Indonesian Obama’

A number of supporters of Joko Widodo are becoming disillusioned by his lack of power to prevent the anti-corruption agenda in Indonesia from being undermined. EPA/Mast Irham

After a narrow victory that brought someone from outside the country’s old guard into office, some supporters of Indonesian President Joko Widodo are starting to become disillusioned with their champion.

Not long ago, Jokowi – as he is popularly known – was riding a horse-drawn carriage on Jakarta’s main streets with thousands of people celebrating his inauguration. International observers compared Jokowi, who promised clean government and human rights protection, to US President Barack Obama in his rise to power.

When other countries in the region, such as Thailand, are facing political crisis and others are still dealing with political monopolies, Jokowi was the symbol of a grassroots democratic movement. His supporters – not his party, the PDI-P – managed to help him beat ex-military general Prabowo Subianto, who served in Suharto’s dictatorship.

But four months into his presidency, people are appalled by Jokowi’s weakness in preventing efforts to undermine Indonesia’s anti-graft agency (KPK) by the notoriously corrupt police institution (Polri) and political elites.

Will this scandal lose Jokowi the supporter base that brought him to power? Will the people’s grassroots movement sustain their power to challenge the corrupt old guard for years to come?

Mapping the ‘relawan’

Post-Suharto Indonesia is dominated by oligarchs, consisting of political elites connected to Suharto’s New Order regime. They are dispersed in all sectors, including political parties, parliament and business.

Jokowi’s win was a show of people’s power to challenge the oligarchy. He came to power mostly on the back of support from volunteer groups, known as relawan. These groups are in a loose alliance, consisting of many elements. It is not a solid entity.

Jokowi came to power mostly on the back of support from volunteer groups. AAP/Zoe Reynolds

Sociologically and politically, there are at least three elements in the volunteer groups. Although this largely describes Jakarta-based supporter groups, other areas have similar elements.

First is the former activists involved in the 1990s pro-democracy movement to topple Suharto. The second group are activists from various non-governmental organisations ranging from the anti-corruption movement to farmers and indigenous community groups. The third are artists and people in the creative sector. The third group is relatively less experienced in politics than the first two groups.

The former 1990s pro-democracy activists and NGOs have specific political agendas. They want to free Indonesia from possible military domination and want the state to observe human rights principles. With their long experience in the democracy movement, they are generally the main organisers of volunteers. They include as many social groups as possible to create a bigger movement.

However, the first and second groups have no real support from the masses. Despite their lack of political experience, the third group is the magnet of the relawan movement. Their popularity as artists on social media succeeded in drawing more supporters and followers.

It was this group that attracted Indonesian citizens from all walks of life to support Jokowi. They used music, posted memes on social media, created a series of cartoons on Jokowi and made T-shirts and all kinds of campaign merchandise.

But unlike the first and second group, the artists had no specific political agenda. They wanted Indonesia to be better, with no concrete imagination of what it is like to be “a better Indonesia”.

Too late and compromised

Four months into office, the Indonesian public is upset with how Jokowi is dealing with the KPK versus Polri saga. In the past month, the police have tried to weaken KPK by criminalising two of its commissioners on flimsy charges. Prior to this, KPK started a case against a candidate for the police chief post, Budi Gunawan – a former aide of PDIP chairwoman Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Last week, Jokowi cancelled Gunawan’s candidacy and nominated caretaker police chief Badrodin Haiti as his candidate. He appointed three acting KPK commissioners to replace the inactive Abraham Samad and Bambang Widjoyanto.

But many consider Jokowi’s move too late and compromised. The South Jakarta Court last week exonerated Gunawan in a controversial and unprecedented pre-trial hearing. The judge ruled that KPK could not investigate Gunawan because, as head of the police human resources, he was not a law enforcer nor an Echelon I public official. This ruling has opened a way for KPK graft suspects to try to avoid criminal prosecution through pre-trial processes.

Jokowi’s choice for acting KPK chairman, Taufiqurachman Ruki, is a former KPK chairman who in his tenure never tried to tackle corruption in the police force. His first move as acting KPK chief is reportedly to request police detectives be sent to serve as KPK investigators.

Return to apathy

Despite public disappointment with Jokowi, there are three reasons why he will not lose his supporter base from this episode in his presidency.

First, Jokowi’s supporters are fragmented in their response to the KPK-Polri saga. The former 1990s pro-democracy activists and NGO activists predominantly support the KPK. They are vocal in showing their support in a “Save KPK” campaign. They have rallied for KPK in front of their headquarters. They are also expressing their opinions through Twitter and Facebook.

But the third group of Jokowi’s supporters are hesitant to criticise him. They prefer to wait and see what Jokowi will do. They think it’s too early to judge Jokowi’s presidency.

One of the reasons for this fragmentation is the way NGO activists frame the issue. For some artists who supported Jokowi, the “Save KPK” movement is similar to the “anti-Jokowi” movement.

The alliance of volunteer groups during the presidential election was too broad and too loose. Unity between the activists, NGO workers, artists and the rest of the public happens only when there is a shared goal as well as a rallying point to unite them. Making Jokowi the winner of last year’s election was the shared goal. On the KPK-Polri issue, not all of Jokowi’s supporters agree that a sense of crisis looms over Indonesia’s anti-corruption agenda.

Second, not many citizens can monitor and pay detailed attention to the political problems Jokowi faces every day. They are the amateurs in political terms. They know the issues only on the surface. They are also preoccupied with their own personal lives. Only the activists working professionally on corruption issues have the time and resources to monitor the development of the KPK-Polri rift closely.

Third, some of Jokowi’s supporters believe that he should be given a break in consideration that Gunawan’s controversial appointment was linked to the web of power of the Indonesian oligarchs that surround Jokowi. This group believes the public should be patient in dealing with the legacy of decades of corruption.

While the KPK-Polri saga will not make Jokowi lose too much of his support base, what is at stake – due to his weakness – is the risk of a return to public apathy and ignorance. The 2014 presidential election was regarded as a moment to bring politics back into the hands of ordinary Indonesian citizens. They believed they have the power to make a change. Now they may think that all of this is business as usual.