President Joko Widodo added nine new ministers to his cabinet on 27 July, including a number of “old” faces, such as former ministers Sri Mulyani and Wiranto (fifth and sixth from left). Photo by Cabinet Secretary.


When he was inaugurated in October 2014, Joko Widodo (Jokowi) was a “triple minority” president: he was relatively new to the national stage, did not control his own party, and relied on a thin coalition in the legislature.


During his campaign, Jokowi promised he would avoid the political horse-trading that usually decides ministerial appointments in Indonesia. Unfortunately, he ended up shackled by the oligarchies that dominate Indonesian politics. This was largely because he was dependent on just four parties – the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), Nasdem, the National Awakening Party (PKB) and the People’s Conscience Party (Hanura), together comprising 37 per cent of the seats in the National Legislature (DPR).


Jokowi’s first year in power demonstrated just how hard it was to be a triple minority president, with his honeymoon period cut short when he nominated Budi Gunawan as his sole candidate for police chief in early 2015. He did this reportedly under pressure from his party boss, Megawati Soekarnoputri and it put him at odds with both opposition parties in the legislature and the parties that supported his candidacy. Public satisfaction had plummeted to 41 per cent by June that year.


His second reshuffle, on Wednesday, indicates the renewed strength of the ruling cartel that has dominated politics since the end of the New Order. Since the Golkar Party, the National Mandate Party (PAN) and the United Development Party (PPP) joined Jokowi’s ruling coalition, he has repeated the pattern of forming a large coalition of the majority of parties in the DPR. This is now equivalent to 69 per cent of seats.


But he didn’t have much of a choice. The presence of Golkar in the coalition – and the 91 seats it brings – will help counter the influence of his own party, PDI-P. This will give him more room to implement his priority programs without having to bow to the demands of his often fractious party.

There are at least three reasons behind the most recent reshuffle. First, Jokowi needs to bind new entrants Golkar and PAN to the coalition. Second, he had to reshuffle sooner rather than later. He needs to be confident that his ministers will be able to translate his vision into a workable plan well ahead of the 2019 elections, which are now on the horizon. Third, he has momentum on his side, having restored public trust – a June survey from Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting showed that his approval rating had climbed back up to 67 per cent.


His speech announcing the reshuffle emphasised that his focus will be on economic issues. The entrance of new faces, like Sri Mulyani as finance minister, plus the retention of old names, like Darmin Nasution and Bambang Brodjonegoro, is intended to reassure businesspeople and the international community. The new ministers recruited from political parties are also relatively “market friendly”. Airlangga Hartarto and Enggartiasto Lukita are not new to politics and both have many years of experience in business.


In the same speech, Jokowi also emphasised cabinet solidarity and expressed a desire for all ranks of his cabinet to get on with their work quietly without indulging in unnecessary debate in the media. This explains why the ministers considered to have been the cause of media distraction suffered in the reshuffle. Jokowi is committed to reducing the commotion so that the public and the business world can focus on the government’s plans.


Although the focus of the reshuffle was on addressing economic issues, political factors were also a major consideration. Golkar and PAN each scored a new ministerial position, while Jokowi’s other coalition partners were able to retain the same number of ministers, except for Hanura (which lost one place but won a powerful coordinating ministry for its leader, Wiranto).


Jokowi is playing it safe. Golkar and PAN were brought into the coalition without displacing the positions of any old coalition partners. Ministers from political parties who were rotated were replaced by figures from the same party seen to have more appropriate qualifications.


He might be avoiding risks, but Jokowi didn’t submit completely to the wishes of his coalition. For example, he stood up to PDI-P lawmakers who have repeatedly called for State Owned Enterprises Minister Rini Soemarno to be dropped. And Golkar is the second largest party in the legislature but it won just a single ministerial post.


It has been a steep learning curve but after nearly two years in the nation’s top job, Jokowi appears to be better able to communicate without creating ripples that might disturb the consolidation of power. In light of his success in reconciling with his political enemies at the elite level, and winning back the hearts of the majority of the public, it’s now time for Jokowi to act more like a president and be braver about decisions that affect the livelihoods of many people.


Jokowi should be aware, however, that forming a broad coalition has the dangerous potential to isolate him from the public. His coalition of seven parties has the potential to develop into a hegemonic power that could cripple the DPR’s capacity to act as a check on the executive.


Jokowi should not be tempted to add further to the ruling coalition. A bloated coalition will reduce his agility, because any policy decision will have to be negotiated with more actors. Instead, he should try to maintain a strong, disciplined grouping of the parties already in the coalition to support the government agenda. At the same time, the Greater Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and the Democratic Party should not be seduced into joining the ruling coalition. Oppositions have political value in a democracy.


A version of this piece was published in Kompas as “Perombakan Kabinet dan Rekonsolidasi Politik” on 28 July.



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