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Widodo presidency reveals contradictions, says expert

Published 05 Mar 2021
Ben Colter
Ben Bland

Indonesian President Joko Widido entered politics with a reformist manifesto but had struggled to implement effective policy since becoming his country’s leader, a recent AIIA Queensland seminar was told.
Lowy Institute expert Ben Bland made this point while discussing his newly published book – Joko Widodo: Man of Contradictions. He said Widodo’s mixed record showed the limitations of Indonesian governance as well as what the country was capable of achieving.
Mr Bland, pictured above, is the Director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Lowy Institute and was a correspondent for the Financial Times in Indonesia, China, and Vietnam.
In his presentation, Mr Bland outlined Widido’s path to the presidency, from his humble beginnings as a furniture manufacturer to his election as mayor of Surakarta (Solo) in 2005. His election as Governor of Jakarta in 2012 made Jokowi, as he is commonly known, a rising star in national politics and paved the way for him to win the presidency in 2014.
Mr Bland says the contradictions that have marked Jokowi’s presidency emerged during this time. His 2014 campaign manifesto promised significant reform of Indonesian policy, economic growth, continuous development of infrastructure, social equality and adequate access to health care and education. This, however, was not an accurate representation of Jokowi’s agenda. Mr Bland argues that Jokowi’s primary interests surrounded nationalist policies that seek to elevate Indonesia’s standing in the global world order. For Jokowi, this could only be achieved through the economy. Given that the economy was the primary focus, original campaign objectives that promised significant reformation, including restoring human rights which were continuously abused by previous autocratic regimes, were left unresolved.
Overall, Mr Bland says Jokowi’s presidency has been an ongoing struggle to implement effective policy. He highlights the Global Maritime Fulcrum, a concept designed to drive economic growth and infrastructure development while elevating Indonesia as a key player in the Indo-Pacific region. However, the implementation of the GMF had been for the most part haphazard and disorganised, with no broader policy objectives identified. Mr Bland says that focus has instead been directed towards domestic security threats, largely surrounding violent attacks from separatists in Papua. But he emphasised that the fault for these problems did not fall squarely on Jokowi alone, but rather, represented the broader political struggle in Indonesia.
This includes entrenched bureaucracy and tensions between local officials and the higher levels of government. Mr Bland says local governments are essential to the political fabric of Indonesia, with citizens appreciating the ability to elect local leaders. However, this has resulted in a tendency for disputes to occur between levels of governance that ultimately hinders the ability for policy to be implemented. An example that Mr Bland outlined is the creation of a ferry line between port facilities in North Sulawesi and the Philippines. Earlier, ASEAN and the US had given significant aid to facilitate the creation of these trade routes to further develop the Indo-Pacific region. As a result, a ferry service was created, which would reduce travel times for goods and services between the two nations and broaden trade routes in the Indo-Pacific. However, trade restriction problems and a lack of practical implementation would result in the ferry only ever completing one trip. While Indonesia’s difficult bureaucratic system has maintained political stability, Mr Bland says it has created an impasse.
According to Mr Bland, Jokowi is the product of these political obstacles, subsequently embodying entrenched contradictions of contemporary Indonesia. Throughout his discussion, he outlined multiple contradictions that have defined the Indonesian President as a leader. While Jokowi rose to power as an outsider, he has slowly gravitated towards the Indonesian elite. This has resulted in another contradiction surrounding his ability to micromanage and listen to voters. However, he has begun to govern more impulsively through gut instinct rather than as a technocrat. For Mr Bland, this impulsive decision making is evidenced through Jokowi’s strange decision to move the administrative capital from Jakarta to East Kalimantan and his mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic. Thirdly, while he campaigned as a reformer, Jokowi has gradually become more of a conservative leader, and rather than seeking significant reformation, has instead opted for incremental change. Lastly, while he has insisted on upholding democratic values, the President has frequently used authoritarian measures, including the persecution of government critics and the use of military force.
However, Mr Bland maintains a hopeful outlook for the future of Jokowi’s presidency and democracy in Indonesia. The ongoing pandemic has strained political systems around the world, of which has been particularly evident in Indonesia. According to Mr Bland, the scientific community in Indonesia has been angered by Jokowi’s ineffective policy in managing the pandemic, which has prioritised the economy over health. Yet despite this, Jokowi maintains a significantly high approval rating as president. For Mr Bland, this is indicative of the inherent ability for Indonesians to unite in the face of crises.
Given that the current democratic system was only implemented 22 years prior after the fall of the New Order, Mr Bland insists that Indonesia is ultimately moving the right direction and that any significant progress and reformation will take time.