Adek Berry / AFP / Getty Images

Hope and change in Indonesia: Country’s Obama takes on spurned elites

Jokowi’s victory heralded as a victory for grass-roots politics, but the nation’s establishment is fighting back

Sworn in as president of Indonesia on Monday will be a man often described as his country’s Barack Obama — a grass-roots sensation whose rise through regional politics into national office has been heralded as a breath of fresh air in a political system dominated by elites.

In Indonesia, a huge but fledgling democracy still shadowed by its dictatorial past, the expectations for Joko Widodo, or Jokowi as he universally known, may even surpass that which greeted Obama in 2008.

Like his soon-to-be U.S. counterpart — who himself spent four years of childhood in the archipelago nation — Indonesia’s president-elect campaigned on a sometimes vaguely defined platform of hope and change for the nation's working classes that galvanized support.

But Jokowi’s early days in office will be a test of more than just one man’s legacy; the future of Indonesia’s democratic project could very well be on the line, some say. The 53-year-old’s narrow victory over Prabowo Subianto, a strongman-figure who was once married to ex-dictator Suharto’s daughter, “means we’re asking whether a new leader who entered politics during the democratic era can drive through reforms, rather than whether an authoritarian-era holdover can wind democracy back,” said Dave McRae, an expert on Indonesian politics with the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne.

Jokowi will take the reins of the burgeoning economic and regional power at a moment when many worry it is on the verge of taking a giant step backward. Just weeks after the July election was called for the upstart, Indonesia’s scorned establishment forces in parliament passed a law that canceled local direct elections and shifted power to crony-dominated assemblies, making it harder for grass-roots politicians like Jokowi to vie with old-school elites.

Supporters of the law have framed it as a means of curbing the rampant corruption among local leaders, who have been directly elected since 2005. Its detractors argue it will have exactly the opposite effect, further entrenching old-guard rulers and unraveling democratic progress in the nation of 250 million people.

“The thinking that citizens are not ready for democracy is worrying,” said Sandra Hamid, the Indonesia representative for the Asia Foundation. “It is worrying that elected officials can openly say they do not trust citizens to directly vote for their governors, head of districts and mayors.”

The election reform law may still be struck down by Indonesia’s high court — it is a deeply unpopular piece of legislation, with some 80 percent of the electorate opposing it — but it is a stark reminder of the deep-seated obstacles that Jokowi faces. In this, analysts say, Obama offers lessons for Indonesia’s most ambitious reformer yet.

“Like Obama, he will surely not be able to fulfill all the high expectations heaped upon him,” said Vedi Hadiz, an Indonesian professor of Asian Societies and Politics at Murdoch University in Australia. “At the moment, he is banking on his popularity to enable him to negotiate with the old forces.”

A self-made man and former furniture salesman, Jokowi has promised to sidestep the transactional politics and corruption that have permeated Indonesia’s democracy since the fall of Suharto in 1998. He has vowed to select a presidential cabinet based on merit, rather than using those positions as political currency to garner support among Jakarta’s powerbrokers. And he has made very public overtures to his political opponents by holding meetings with bigwigs in the opposition Merah-Putih coalition. On Friday, even Prabowo — who had seemingly snubbed all invitations after losing out to Jokowi — met with his presidential victor, and came away pledging his support.

But while Jokowi has the backing of the influential party leader Megawati Sukarnoputri — a former president and daughter of independence leader Sukarno — many are more circumspect about his ability to achieve ambitious reforms without engaging in the same politicking he has railed against.

Jokowi's supporters say they hope his outsider status will enable him to be bolder than his predecessor — the rather staid Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono —by operating through a leaner coalition, but analysts say any success will hinge on whether he can balance the inspiring commitment to reform that got him elected and the political realities in Jakarta, which include an antagonistic parliament that has seemed dead-set on undermining the president-elect.

“For Jokowi’s government, the turbulence serves as a wake-up call, a reminder of what real politics is going to look like in the next five years,” said Hamid, of the Asia Foundation. “Given that we have never had a minority government, this may be a good thing for Indonesia.”

An early test will be how Jokowi addresses the deeply embedded corruption in Indonesia — a country Transparency International consistently rates as one of the most corrupt in the world. Since Jokowi's election, parliament has passed a bill making it harder to investigate corrupt MPs and is pushing for the president to curtail the powers of the KPK, or Anti-Corruption Commission, which is “arguably the most trusted of the institutions that have emerged out of Indonesia’s relatively young democracy," Hadiz said. 

“The problem, of course, is that corruption is the fuel that keeps the Indonesian political system running in the way that it is presently constituted,” he explained.

Securing political capital among these same elites will be key, however, as Jokowi will immediately be shouldered with slowing economic growth and simmering religious tensions. The most pressing economic concern is the need to roll back fuel subsidies, a move that will be highly unpopular but necessary if Jokowi intends to revamp Indonesia’s woeful infrastructure and effectively implement universal health care. Analysts expect Jokowi will hike prices about 45 percent, saving Indonesia somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 billion next year.

He will also come under pressure to redirect backward momentum on Indonesia's longstanding religious tolerance, a legacy of the outgoing president, who walked on eggshells around the hardline Sunni Defense League (SDL) while more moderate Islamic parties gained traction in April elections.

During a decade of rule, Yudhoyono effectively allowed radical groups to “set the discourse and challenge pluralistic principles,” said Tobias Basuki, a political researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. As a consequence, minority groups in the predominantly Sunni country — including Ahmadiyah and Shia Muslims alongside Christians — saw their rights curtailed and religious violence flare. It will be politically risky to confront these hardline currents, said Hadiz, but “the hope is that [Jokowi] will be less wishy-washy than his predecessor.”

He comes to power, however, as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant insurgency sweeps across Syria and Iraq, exciting a new generation of disaffected, radical young Muslims across the globe with its wanton brutality. Hundreds of Indonesians are believed to be fighting with ISIL and at least one prominent Indonesian radical has already pledged allegiance to its leader.

The world's largest Muslim-majority nation is on edge about the potential domestic security threat ISIL might pose, especially with the wounds from the Islamic insurgency in Aceh, which ended in 2005, still fresh.

But Jokowi’s — and Indonesia’s — challenges are far from insurmountable. Though many are tempted to draw pessimistic conclusions given his parallels with Obama, who has disappointed many in the U.S. after encountering partisan brinkmanship and Congressional discord, Jokowi faces a very different set of circumstances. “Jokowi will not face a society as divided as the U.S., and the main grand issues that sway public opinion strongly are much fewer and less contentious compared to the U.S,” said Basuki.

One major advantage Jokowi will gain on Monday is a more expansive right to veto legislation than exists in the American presidential system. Indonesia’s president and parliament must agree on draft legislation in order for it to pass, so Jokowi has some ability to block truly regressive laws, noted McRae of the University of Melbourne.

And unlike Obama in 2008, he enters office with a more extensive executive experience, as mayor of the city of Solo and most recently as governor of Jakarta.

“Jokowi and Obama both had grand entrances, but Jokowi’s personal construct is somewhat more technical than the grand vision Obama had,” Basuki added. "For better or for worse.”

Related News


Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter



Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter