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Game On: Testing Times Ahead for Indonesia’s New President

03 Oct 2014
By Professor Tim Lindsey AO FAIIA
Image credit: Flickr (Eduardo M. C.)

In the aftermath of the 9 July Indonesian presidential election, Professor Tim Lindsey analyses the significance of the recent shift of power and the challenges to come for the Jokowi administration.

Despite much protest, political posturing and refusal to concede, Jokowi’s opponents—the petulant former General Prabowo Subianto and his deputy, former minister for the economy Hatta Rajasa—will not be sworn in on 20 October. Prabowo has announced that he will challenge the 9 July election results in other courts but this is almost certain to fail, given that the Constitutional Court has exclusive jurisdiction over election outcomes.

In fact, the Constitutional Court’s decision on 21 August, rejecting Prabowo’s challenge to Jokowi’s victory, has accelerated a reconfiguring of Indonesian politics that began soon after election day, and results to a large extent from Jokowi’s status as a political outsider. He is a successful self-made businessman from a poor background who has repeatedly won popular elections, including against established incumbents, first as mayor of the central Javanese town of Solo (Surakarta), then as Governor of Jakarta. He will be the first president since the fall of Soeharto’s authoritarian regime who was not a member of the elite during that time.

He will also be the first to come to power without being weighed down by major political, personal and financial obligations to members of the existing elite. Unlike Prabowo, Jokowi is a cleanskin with a record of good governance and reform. That makes his presidency a potential threat to those who enjoyed power under outgoing President Yudhoyono or the administrations before him.

This is one reason why members of the political elite scrambled to join Prabowo’s Red and White Coalition during the election campaign, and why there are now intense negotiations going on behind the scenes to change sides. The parties and leaders who had opposed Jokowi are now trying to find ways to get a foothold in the winning side. Jokowi is not in a hurry to welcome the latecomers but Prabowo’s majority coalition is nonetheless vulnerable.

In fact, Prabowo has lost more than the top job. He has been campaigning for years and he and his tycoon brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, spent huge amounts to get within six or so percentage points of victory, as did many of his now-disgruntled wealthy supporters. In the longer term, Prabowo will struggle to maintain the formidable power base he built over the last five years.

Even his own deputy seems increasingly uncomfortable—as well as he might—given that he now faces serious corruption investigations linked to his time as transport minister in Yudhoyono’s first term. The kick-back allegations against Hatta Rajasa might well have gone nowhere had Prabowo won. After all, Prabowo—who stands for the old system of patronage politics—said during the campaign that he would like to roll back the democratising constitutional reforms and transparency measures introduced after Soeharto, his former father-in-law, was toppled in 1998.

Another key Prabowo supporter is Aburizal Bakrie, also a tycoon and head of Soeharto’s former party, GOLKAR. He has been a major player in Indonesian politics for decades but is now very unpopular. For the first time in many years, he finds himself without the leverage over the government that he has long used to protect his faltering business empire. He also faces a push from within GOLKAR to replace him with incoming Vice President Kalla or a proxy. There is a precedent for this—Kalla took back control of GOLKAR from a rival last time he was vice president, also in Yudhoyono’s first term. Bakrie now finds himself increasingly isolated and blamed for GOLKAR picking the wrong side.

Yudhoyono’s Democrat party is in trouble too. Its credibility shattered by a string of corruption scandals that led to the jailing or resignation of much of its leadership, it did poorly in the elections for the legislature (the DPR), lost its large plurality, and then supported Prabowo’s failed candidacy. The Party is now split between those who see opposition as a chance to rebuild and those who want a place in Jokowi’s government.  It is also hampered by the intense animus between its increasingly unpopular leader, Yudhoyono, and former president Megawati Soekarnoputri, the tough leader of Jokowi’s party, PDI-P.

In the meantime, the incoming administration is focused on the vital issue of cabinet formation. As in the US, the Indonesian cabinet is appointed from outside the legislature. Jokowi has said he wants a government dominated by technocrats, not just party hacks, and will require political party leaders to resign from their posts if they want to take up a ministry. He also approved Facebook surveys polling the public on possible ministerial candidates. In an effort to select ministers without compromised pasts, he even has investigators doing background checks to identify unexplained wealth that might suggest corruption.

All this would be a true revolution in Indonesian political culture but it remains to be seen whether Jokowi can pull it off. His own party, PDI-P, certainly does not have a clean record, and many of its leaders expect to be rewarded for backing his candidacy. Jokowi will also face opposition in the DPR because his party holds a plurality of only 20 per cent. The next few months will be crucial in deciding whether he can, first, get the cabinet he wants (and he is bound to have compromise) and, second, chip enough away from Prabowo’s larger legislative coalition to get his agenda through once he takes office.

Even if he does, there is no guarantee Jokowi won’t face the sort of opposition that handicapped Yudhoyono throughout his two terms in office. Party discipline is very weak in the DPR and members often ignore their party’s position, so new coalitions have to be built for most new bills. Jokowi certainly has a strong record as a quiet but effective negotiator but that is bound to be severely tested in the months ahead, given that Prabowo has already said he will push for a legislative investigation into the conduct of the elections.

In fact, it seems clear that Prabowo is determined to bring Jokowi down by any means available. His coalition has just pushed through a highly controversial statute ending direct election of religion heads of government, and has now indicated it will try to end direct public election of the president too. The differences between them are now stark and bitter: Jokowi stands for the new popular democracy and Prabowo for old patterns of elite rule.

Like Obama in the US, Jokowi comes to office burdened by extraordinarily high—and perhaps unrealistic—hopes that his administration will be transformative. Despite strong GDP growth, Indonesia’s many ‘wicked problems’; including institutionalised corruption, poor infrastructure, grossly inadequate transport, weak foreign investment, crippling fuel subsidies, uneven wealth distribution, local religious tensions and slow bureaucratic reform, remain unresolved.

It will take real political genius to start fixing these quickly enough to maintain public trust, given that Prabowo and other disgruntled elite figures are out there waiting; itching for the opportunity to take Jokowi down.


Professor Tim Lindsey is Malcolm Smith Professor of Asian Law at the University of Melbourne, where he heads the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society. His publications include ‘Indonesia: Law and Society’, ‘The Constitution of Indonesia and Islam’, ‘Law and the State in Southeast Asia – Vol I: Indonesia’. He is a founding editor of The Australian Journal of Asian Law.