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Jokowi has little to bargain with except for his personal popularity. Photo by US Department of State.


In July 2014, after Indonesia’s presidential election, Richard Robison and I anticipated that Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) would have a hard time delivering on the simultaneously populist and reformist rhetoric of his campaign. We thought that he faced an uphill battle dealing with the powerful vested interests that have continued to dominate Indonesia’s politics and economy since the New Order. We certainly did not entertain the idea that Jokowi’s victory represented a major break with the past.


Instead, we envisaged that he would have to operate within a system of power where public authority and private wealth had long been fused, handicapped by the fact that he had no political party or machinery to call his own. The problem-ridden presidency of Jokowi so far seems to have confirmed what we expected.


The sense of optimism that greeted Jokowi’s victory was largely based on his status as a political outsider who had demonstrated competence at lower levels of government. Untainted by corruption scandals, he was the first president since the fall of Soeharto who could be considered a genuine product of the democratic era. But with Jokowi’s image as a “man of the people”, we may forget that his personal trajectory illustrates quite starkly that local political and business elites have been the greatest beneficiaries of Indonesian democratisation and decentralisation. Whether they are able to change the rules of the game – or have any interest in doing so – is another question.


Still, it was valid to greet Jokowi’s victory with relief given the authoritarian inclinations and brutal past of his then rival. Prabowo Subianto’s critics were correct that his election would have made a mockery of the ideals of reformasi (the reform movement), no matter how frustratingly unfulfilled they remain.


It is no secret that Prabowo appealed to many who were exasperated with the dysfunctions of government after 1998 and yearned for the stability and predictability associated with the rule of his former father-in-law. Though Jokowi’s emergence as a national leader reflected the same exasperation, his victory affirmed the legitimacy of the decentralised democratic system that had produced him. Nevertheless, his effectiveness as president was always going to require adroit navigation through the notoriously fluid alliances of Indonesian politics. Fortunately, such adeptness was how he skyrocketed to the position in the first place.

The Problem

And here lies the problem: Jokowi’s remarkable rise was made possible by a democratic and decentralised political system in which negotiation, including with old vested interests, was necessary for advancement. But now that he has advanced all the way to the presidency, he has found that he has few bargaining chips to use in negotiations with oligarchic power.


Jokowi has always had to bank on his own personal popularity. But this popularity hinges on a reputation for honesty and getting things done – a combination that retains some of its attractiveness because it is so hard to associate with many of his political contemporaries. Nonetheless, it was always going to be difficult for Jokowi to maintain popularity unless he delivered on his promises – no matter how vaguely articulated.


It has been difficult for Jokowi to sustain the image of a “can-do” man that he enjoyed as mayor of Solo, and to some extent, as governor of Jakarta. Though he hasn’t lost the common touch, his trademark forays into neighbourhoods and markets have become tiresome without concrete policy outcomes. If he cannot deliver tangible achievements, especially in the economic field, Jokowi will lose popularity, and will be in a weaker position in the face of entrenched interests. In turn, his presidency would then be less effective – and so it could go on. For falling short of expectations, comparisons with another once hopeful reformer, Barack Obama, easily come to mind.


Jokowi’s election campaign was notable for the network of volunteers it was able to deploy, giving the misleading impression of a solid base of grassroots support, if not organisation. While many of these networks were no doubt made up of those with genuine intentions of reform, others were activated by allies situated at or near the heart of oligarchic power, with whom deals had been made.


These volunteers were in no way a substitute for a cohesive political machinery over which he could assume control. Instead Jokowi was – and continues to be – largely dependent on the patronage of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), led by its curmudgeonly matriarch, Megawati Soekarnoputri. Jokowi’s first cabinet was therefore predictably filled by the usual party hacks, given the need to shore up support in the legislature for any policy endeavour. The wheeling and dealing behind cabinet reshuffles – one occurring last year and another apparently impending – provide tragicomical insight into what is demanded of governing from a position of weakness.

Waning Populism

It should be noted that Jokowi has a reputation for being an economic populist – a label that alarms those with unbending faith in the market. But his economic populism is rather mild. This is perhaps a reflection of the lack of an independent political machinery similar to those built by populists in Latin America – Alberto Fujimori in Peru, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela or Lulz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil.


To make a geographically closer comparison, Jokowi is not what Thaksin Shinawatra used to be in Thailand – a super wealthy tycoon with his own party. Thaksin agitated elites by embarking on a “new social contract”, which involved mobilising the poor by catering to their health and welfare needs. In contrast, there are limits to how far Jokowi’s economic populism can go.


One of these limits is material. Jokowi quickly realised that to achieve his healthcare and welfare reforms he would need to restructure a national budget where most outlays were for routine expenditures and fuel subsidies. To his credit, he managed to reduce subsidies – at some cost to his personal popularity – to fund social spending, including his signature healthcare program. Much needed support for infrastructural projects also appeared. But achieving desired tax revenue increases to make up for a decline in resources-linked income will be tough. Of course, he faces another gargantuan problem in a corrupt bureaucracy accustomed to siphoning off the public coffers.


What has filled the void left by the waning of Jokowi’s economic populist aspirations? For the most part, as seen in the recent Freeport contract fiasco, and battles for control over the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), it is dirty business and politics as usual.



This post is an updated version of a presentation given at the “Who is benefiting from Jokowi’s economic policies?” seminar organised by the Asia Institute and the Indonesia Forum. A video of the full seminar can be viewed here.



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