July 2015

The Nation Reviewed

Java drama

By Hamish McDonald
Favours and foreign affairs: Joko Widodo’s first year as Indonesian president

There comes a moment in a long evening of wayang orang, the theatre of Java based on the great Hindu epics, when the drama cuts from strident speeches by gorgeously costumed warriors and princes against painted backdrops of palaces. A set of open fields and distant volcanoes drops down, a dreamy riff comes from the gamelan orchestra, and onstage in a rolling waddle comes the shirtless, fat character Semar followed by an ill-assorted trio of younger peasants. The audience chuckles, and settles in to enjoy a lighter moment. The switch has been thrown to vaudeville.

The sense of lightness was there, late one afternoon a year ago, when a crowd gathered in a Jakarta park to see Joko Widodo make his victory speech after the presidential election.

It was a security chief’s nightmare, the victorious candidate pressing forward through an unscreened crowd desperate to get close, the TV camera drones hovering like giant dragonflies overhead. But it was joyous. “Jokowi” – as his name is universally abbreviated – had won on the campaign slogan “Jokowi is us.”

Indonesia’s previous leaders in its 70-year history were warriors or princes mostly: the upper-class Sukarno, the general Suharto, the hereditary Islamic leader Gus Dur, Sukarno’s daughter Megawati, and the general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. (The brief and accidental exception was the German-educated scientist BJ Habibie in 1998–99.)

Jokowi had just seen off a close challenge from Prabowo Subianto, a candidate who embodied this trend: ex–army general and special forces soldier; son and grandson of economic notables; funded by a rich brother; claiming ancestry to 19th-century leaders of the rebellion against the Dutch; and promising firm, top-down government.

By contrast, Jokowi came from the same background as the local characters the Javanese inserted into the Hindu epics. His father was a carpenter and lumber merchant in the small city of Solo in Central Java. Their house was humble, and Jokowi had worked his way up through school and university to a start as a forestry engineer in Aceh, before coming back to establish a successful furniture-making company.

His trajectory into national politics was remarkably short. After a stint as the mayor of Solo, where he became noted for cleaning up its streets and restoring its aura of high Javanese culture, he was drafted – ironically by Prabowo – for a successful tilt at the patronage-ridden governorship of the nation’s capital.

Barely a year in that job, however, his humble style – marked by frequent neighbourhood walkabouts, the start of a health insurance scheme and the awarding of long-delayed contracts for a metro network – brought Jokowi forward as a presidential candidate. He was the only one in the polls who looked able to defeat Prabowo’s well-funded machine run by American campaign professionals.

The political scientist closest to Jokowi, Marcus Mietzner from the Australian National University, has noted that it was a contest between two types of populism. Prabowo used demagogic speeches against foreign exploiters and local traitors to offer a nationalistic autocracy. Jokowi essentially proposed making the existing democratic system work more efficiently and honestly for ordinary people.

Hence that feeling of lightness last July. Indonesia’s transition into democracy since Suharto’s fall in 1998 looked validated again: a winner with no special lineage, no personal fortune (Jokowi asked people for campaign funds, instead of handing out envelopes and snacks to rent-a-crowds), who respectfully talked of the publik (the public, implying citizens with rights) instead of the rakyat (the people, suggesting a passive mass). It was a victory over the political–military–big business oligarchy that had long run Indonesia as an extractive industry.

A year later, the drawbacks are a lot more obvious. Jokowi’s real political struggle actually began that day last July. To stand for the presidency, he had to wait patiently and humbly for Megawati to step aside. Diddled out of the presidency she thought she had won in 1999 by Gus Dur’s more adept manoeuvring, then defeated in 2004 and 2009 by her former security minister Yudhoyono, she still thought another term as president was her Sukarnoist heritage. Reluctantly, she followed the opinion polls and gave Jokowi the nomination of her Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), but insisted his new government, sworn in last October, include her daughter and other favourites as ministers.

A political crisis resulted within two months, when Megawati declared to him that her former presidential adjutant, Budi Gunawan, had to be appointed national police chief even though the KPK, the widely respected anti-corruption commission, immediately spotted his vast unexplained wealth. Jokowi eventually found a less contentious police chief, but not before Budi’s supporters in the police stitched up cases that forced the KPK’s chiefs to stand aside.

The military, only semi-reformed since Suharto’s fall, has meanwhile used the consequential fall in the standing of the police to rebuild its “territorial” role in domestic security and public services, long noted as a source of corruption. Through the senior security minister, a retired admiral, it has pushed back against Jokowi’s recent declaration that the province of Papua is open to foreign journalists. Another Megawati favourite, the former army general and intelligence chief AM Hendropriyono, obtained presidential support for a “national car” project with Malaysia’s Proton car factory, whose products are hardly the hottest item even in their home country.

At a PDI-P congress this April, held at a Bali hotel her father had built with Japanese war reparations, Megawati had herself re-elected party chief for another five years, and effectively declared the president was a functionary under her authority. Indonesia’s system of democracy “regulates that the president and vice president naturally enforce a political party’s policy line”, she said, adding, “It goes without saying that the president must toe the party line, because the party policies are consistent with what the public wants.” Jokowi sat poker-faced in the audience. He was refused permission to give the speech he had prepared.

Not only does Jokowi have to placate Megawati, but also he has to work through a legislature dominated by parties that backed Prabowo.

Against this background, the 29 April executions of eight convicted drug smugglers, including the two Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, look like an effort to display power, as the oligarchy reasserts itself. Jokowi’s handling of the issue showed emotional remoteness, a dubious grasp of the responsibilities of office, and poor knowledge about Indonesia’s drug problem.

Even now there have been few, if any, in-depth and on-the-record interviews with him. Many visitors report a man little interested in things beyond his program of better welfare and infrastructure for Indonesians. Some unkind Indonesian observers have likened Jokowi to Petruk, the skinny one of Semar’s three sidekicks in the wayang, who in one episode called Petruk Dadi Raja (Petruk Becomes King) picks up a talisman of power dropped by a prince and becomes ruler, with chaotic results.

But those who know Jokowi best say he is intelligent, focused and probably playing a long game. And from another perspective, Jokowi’s government has started well. In its first month it slashed subsidies for petrol and diesel, and then, when oil prices plunged, cut the petrol subsidy altogether. This has saved A$20 billion in the current year’s budget, most of which has been devoted to new infrastructure. China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Japan’s competing offer of US$100 billion in credit for projects in Asia indicate further funding for Jokowi’s objectives.

Yet diversion of limited revenues to special interests and a sense that the anti-corruption fight is weakening could undercut whatever Jokowi achieves. That could make it harder for him to throw off Megawati – surely his long game politically.

For Australia, the executions of Chan and Sukumaran have been a lesson in limited influence. We don’t have anyone in government who has got close to Jokowi. Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s assertiveness in turning back asylum-seeker boats and his refusal to apologise for the phone-tapping exposed by Edward Snowden meant any unfortunate choice of words was seized on as arrogance. Radio Australia’s audience of 20 million has gone, our cachet as the only Western country learning Bahasa Indonesia disappearing, our aid budget close to halved.

Meanwhile, Jakarta’s political circles are still coasting as if the resources boom of the last decade had not ended, and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) club of rising economic powers is not, for the moment, a busted story. With the United States and Japan anxiously courting South-East Asian nations as counterweights to China, Indonesia’s elite feels it has bigger, more useful friends than Australia.

Just over eight months into the new president’s five-year term, this seems a dismal setback to Abbott’s “Jakarta not Geneva” foreign policy. Yet a Jokowi embattled by domestic oligarchs, and flip-flopping in his speeches between castigating Western nations as exploitative powers and seeking their investment in Indonesia’s development, seems a candidate for quiet cultivation. The question is: who in the Australian government could do that?

Hamish McDonald

Hamish McDonald has been a correspondent and editor for the Far Eastern Economic Review, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Saturday Paper.

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