In Indonesia, missteps mar president’s first months in office

President Joko Widodo, seen here with his wife, Iriana Joko Widodo, has gotten some praise along with the criticism, and an analyst noted that his election may have generated unrealistic expectations.
(Joseph Nair / Associated Press)

Upon winning Indonesia’s presidency last year, Joko Widodo received congratulatory messages that were not just from the usual array of world leaders. His landmark win also prompted shout-outs from members of Guns N’ Roses, Megadeth and Anthrax.

The messages from the heavy rock bands to Joko, a noted metal fan, seemed to underscore the excitement many Indonesians felt about the furniture salesman-turned-politician. Pledging to break with Indonesia’s elite-dominated past, Joko, 53, displayed a common touch, making impromptu campaign visits to street vendors and marketplaces.

Since taking office in October, however, his promises to reform Southeast Asia’s biggest economy have not been fulfilled.


He has appointed ministers and advisors dogged by allegations of human rights abuses and provoked international criticism by vowing to execute convicted drug traffickers, including several foreigners.

He has also was reluctant to stand up for Indonesia’s respected anticorruption commission after it leveled accusations against his nominee for leader of the powerful national police.

“From a reformer’s point of view, there have been disappointing compromises on Cabinet positions, and particularly the police chief nominations,” said Jacqueline Hicks, a researcher at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies. “It is certainly not the revolution some had hoped for.”

Critics say early missteps by Joko, who previously served as mayor of his hometown, Solo, and governor of the Jakarta region, have exposed his inexperience at the national level and a vulnerability to entrenched political elites.

Even supporters say he has had to balance the demands of powerful politicians who backed his candidacy, particularly former President Megawati Sukarnoputri and wealthy businessman Surya Paloh, one of whose allies was appointed by Joko as attorney general.

“He has a baby-step approach to getting things done. There is a lot of politics between the president and his parties,” said Abdee Negara, a popular Indonesian guitarist who campaigned for Joko.

Still, Abdee said, “I was glad I was part of the wind of change.”

Political analysts say it’s not yet clear whether the soft-spoken Joko is an ineffective idealist swayed by elite backers or a pragmatist balancing competing interests. He is still in the early stages of a five-year term at the helm of a dizzyingly large nation of 13,000 islands, 250 million citizens and hundreds of ethnic groups.

Campaigning as an outsider, he defeated Prabowo Subianto, a former special forces commander from a wealthy Indonesian dynasty. Prabowo’s strongman rhetoric prompted speculation of a return to the autocratic practices of former dictator Suharto, Subianto’s former father-in-law, who ruled Indonesia for three decades before being overthrown by popular protests in 1998.

One of Joko’s toughest tests has involved the anticorruption commission, which has frequently been at odds with politicians and the police. When the president nominated former Megawati aide Budi Gunawan as police chief, the commission accused Budi of bribery and illicit wealth.

Lawmakers backed the nominee and the police arrested a member of the commission. Joko did not immediately intervene, giving the impression of indecisiveness.

“The biggest mistake he made in the … conflict was to let it grow to such extent,” said Ulla Fionna, an Indonesia specialist at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

The president eventually came up with a compromise in which Budi did not get the police job but the antigraft commissioners, then under police investigation, also stood down temporarily. The move disappointed many who had backed his campaign.

Johan Budi, the commission’s temporary deputy chairman, said the panel is in a corner because it needs police support to pursue corruption cases. He said the president has asked the police and the commission, which have a fractious history, “to stop criminalization of each other.”

Compared with his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who intervened decisively in similar clashes in 2009 and ‘12, Joko has taken a “very different” approach, Johan said.

Yudhoyono also briefly halted executions of convicted drug traffickers before bowing to hard-liners in 2013 and resuming capital punishment. Joko has refused to compromise on drug-related executions.

Six convicted drug peddlers were executed in January, souring relations with Brazil and the Netherlands, which had citizens among those put to death. Australia’s government has appealed for clemency for two citizens whose executions have been delayed because of legal challenges.

“We want to send a strong message to drug smugglers that Indonesia is firm and serious in tackling the drug problem, and one of the consequences is execution if the court sentences them to death,” Joko told Al Jazeera in a recent interview.

In contrast to the plaudits after his election win, rock musicians have criticized the executions. Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi pleaded with Joko to spare the Australians, who are said by pastors and other visitors to be reformed after a decade behind bars.

Along with criticism, Joko’s policies have garnered compliments. By reducing costly fuel subsidies, he has freed up what economists estimated to be close to $20 billion for spending on infrastructure; he has also managed to steer a revised budget through the parliament thanks to cracks in the opposition coalition that backed Prabowo in the election.

Rodrigo Chaves, Indonesia director for the World Bank, said in a news release that the government “deserves praise for the fuel subsidy reforms and subsequent budget reallocations to infrastructure spending,” measures seen as vital to boosting growth in the world’s 10th-largest economy.

Hicks, the analyst, said Joko’s election may have generated unrealistic expectations of change, blinding supporters to the realities of governing.

“The exigencies of realpolitik once in office require some level of deal-making,” she said.

Roughneen is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Shashank Bengali in Mumbai, India, contributed to this report.