Jokowi and the art of the reshuffle
SMART politicians know it pays to keep the masses and the media engaged and entralled by regular headline-grabbing actions. Nothing achieves that goal more effectively than a sudden reshuffling of the ministerial deck chairs, especially if wildly popular or intensely disliked figures are involved.
So it proved once again when Indonesia’s oft-underestimated President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo abruptly dumped nine ministers and juggled the jobs of four others on July 27.
It was his second reshuffle in under two years, and while directed primarily at his domestic constituency, it drew global attention – both positive and negative.
And it reaffirmed that Jokowi is a man now firmly in charge of the world’s fourth-largest country, which, it bears repeating, constitutes 42 percent of ASEAN’s population and is the region’s biggest economy by far.
In the months after his surprise election in 2014, Jokowi did not always fare well and often looked out of his depth, so that within a year his approval rating had dropped from around 70pc to 40pc.
The problem was not just inexperience – he had shot from being a small-town mayor to the presidency in just four years and had no ties to the nation’s traditional power bases – but also because he lacked legislative clout.
While he won the presidency comfortably, his party and its allies lacked a working majority in the 560-seat People’s Representative Council, as Indonesia’s legislature is called.
That changed radically this January when the country’s second-largest party belatedly threw its support behind Jokowi, giving him a freer hand to implement his bold reformist agenda.
He began to move quickly – as did his approval ratings, which, at the end of last month, climbed back to 67pc, a figure the likes of Barack Obama and Angela Merkel could only dream about.
His upsurge culminated in the revamp of his “Working Cabinet”, and will help him push ahead with plans to revise the nation’s anti-terrorism laws and fire up the economy.
Although the reshuffle was extensive, and included new faces at the important trade, energy and industry ministries, there were two changes in particular that grabbed the headlines.
One was the reappointment as minister of finance of Sri Mulyani Indrawati, who will be 54 this month and who held the post from 2005 to 2010 before quitting to become a managing director of the World Bank.
Youthful, vivacious, smart and very successful in her first stint at the job, she gained almost rock-star popularity for the way she sacked officials involved in corruption and began reforming the tax system.
She also oversaw such a major increase in investment in Indonesia that the growth rate shot up and the national reserves burgeoned to US$50 billion, the highest level ever.
So why did she resign six years ago? Well, Sri Mulyani is a lady much in the mould of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Margaret Thatcher and Benazir Bhutto: She is decisive, determined, intelligent – and very stubborn.
She annoys a lot of men, especially the testosterone-challenged variety. One such was Aburizal Bakrie, immensely rich and head of a political party upon whose support then-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono relied.
Someone had to go, and it was Sri Mulyani, whose move to the World Bank in Washington caused such unease in Jakarta’s financial circles that the stock market fell by 3.8pc and the rupiah currency lost 1pc in value.
Now Jokowi has brought her back in a move that has been cheered by analysts and foreign investors, who love her tough reformist credo and adherence to transparency and the rule of law.
That said, while she is internationally lauded, she irks many at home due to her perceived arrogance and condescension to lesser mortals – again, the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-Ms Thatcher syndrome, you might say.
Couple that with the fact that she is not affiliated with any party and has no political support base, and it becomes clear that her recall was a bold but risky move that could cause problems for Jokowi in the future.
It was not, however, half as bold and controversial as his other key appointment, namely that of Wiranto, a former army general and defence minister, as the nation’s new coordinating minister for security affairs.
A deeply polarising figure, Wiranto, 69, was charged in 2003 with crimes against humanity because of the atrocities committed by forces under his command during the final stages of East Timor’s war of independence.
Before that, he had been accused of human rights abuses when his men opened fire on unarmed students protesting against President Suharto’s regime at Jakarta’s Trisakti University in 1998, killing four young men.
So his appointment now as the nation’s security overlord has drawn wide condemnation from civic society groups, and Western countries like the United States have expressed concern.
That will not faze Jokowi, who knows his domestic constituents well and knows how much they fear the growing threat of terrorists, especially those linked to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
He understands that when people are worried in that way, they’d far rather have someone strong and ruthless, even if tainted, than someone weak but sweet and pure.
So Wiranto will please most Indonesians, and most certainly the military, whose influence Jokowi, as a civilian, must always retain if he is to prosper as president.
All told, his reshuffle has been masterly, both in its timing and its key changes, which have boosted the heft of his cabinet and his own standing.
Well done Jokowi; well done democratic Indonesia. It is an example to the rest of ASEAN, particularly the likes of Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.
In the months after his surprise election in 2014, Jokowi did not always fare well and often looked out of his depth.
Indonesia President Joko Widodo reads the oath of office during a swearing-in ceremony for new cabinet members at the State Palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, on July 27.