The People’s President
Joko Widodo has laid the foundations of a new political culture in Indonesia where even a common man can now think of rising to political prominence.
Indonesia’s Joko Widodo has made history by becoming president of a country where such posts are usually held by the political and military elite.
Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, has been elected the new president of Indonesia. From being the mayor of a small city to the governor of Jakarta, to the head of state, Widodo’s political career has been marked by many achievements. But it remains to be seen whether he can emulate his success as a local politician at the national level.
The most important aspect of Widodo’s political career is that despite his very humble, lower middleclass background, he rose to prominence by dint of sheer merit and ability. He grew up in a slum-like locality and started with a small business of selling furniture. In a country where an elitist political culture dominates, making one’s way to the highest office is a huge achievement. From being an ordinary individual to the most important personality of the country, the successful journey was made possible by Widodo’s hard work, perseverance and, above all, his image of being ‘the people’s man’. He formed this image by making himself always available for public service and by showing a readiness to solve their problems. He regularly demonstrated these traits while serving as governor of Jakarta.
His most important approach to governance was blusukan – paying regular visits to low income and poor localities across Jakarta. During these visits, he would wear informal clothes and spend time at markets or walk down narrow lanes to meet and chat with the people about their problems, like food prices, housing difficulties and transport woes. This approach made Wododo highly popular among the residents of Jakarta while he was also noted and commended for his approach by national leaders. Keeping in view Widodo’s sweeping success as governor of Jakarta, the Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-P) nominated him for the office of president, a position he eventually won.
Widodo has definitely made history by becoming president of a country where such posts are usually held by those who belong to the political and military elite. The rise of a man from a middleclass background to the highest corridors of power is unprecedented in Indonesia’s history. In other words, Widodo has not only clinched the highest governmental slot but has also laid the foundation of a new political culture where a common Indonesian can dream of rising to political prominence.
However, the new journey will not be an easy one for the president as it is expected that he would try to replicate his unique approach to governance at the national level. While it is generally believed that Widodo will use his expertise and sincerity of purpose to serve the country, the office of president has never been a bed of roses in Indonesia. The president is likely to face many challenges in the crisis-marred country, which badly needs reforms. Introducing reforms is going to be an uphill task for a number of reasons.
There is a huge difference in governing a province and ruling a country, especially Indonesia, which is large and populous. Indonesian society is a complex mixture of ethnicities, socio-economic groups and sub-
groups – each with its own aspirations and interests, often conflicting. Catering to the needs, requirements and aspirations of all the people and groups is nearly impossible. In addition to looking after the needs of the population, Widodo also has to handle the country’s foreign relations, which was not the case when he was running the provincial government. Formulating and executing foreign policy is a difficult task and will be a test of Widodo’s diplomatic skills.
Another big challenge for President Widodo is to deal with an antagonistic and powerful parliament known as the House of Representatives (DPR). Currently, two-thirds of the seats in the DPR are held by Widodo’s rival party, Prabowo Subianto and its allies. The PDI-P and three of its allied parties control 37 percent of the parliamentary seats. A parliament controlled by rival groups always acts as an irritant for the ruling party in the way of delivering political promises. As the president is dependent on the parliament for the approval of many policies, it will require a lot of his time and energy to meaningfully engage and manipulate it to achieve results. This will mainly depend on his negotiation skills.
Also, the office of president in Indonesia is not used to the informal approach to governance which was the hallmark of Widodo’s administration at the local and provincial levels. Therefore, he is likely to face tough opposition if he tries to introduce new values to the political and administrative arena. A country where most politicians support the status quo, a reformist leader like Widodo is destined to face resistance. Nevertheless, only a person of his caliber can bring about and lead real political change.
The new president will also have to face challenges on the economic front. The foremost challenge in this regard will be to revive the increasingly sluggish national economy. To convince foreign investors to put their money in the largest economy of South East Asia is going to be a difficult task. Widodo will have to come up with sound economic policies. One challenge for him in the economic arena will be the withdrawal of subsidies on fuel amounting to nearly $20 billion. For years, the World Bank and other international financial institutions have been urging Indonesia to end fuel subsidies. But none of the past governments dared to take this step for fear of upsetting the middleclass, which benefits the most from the subsidy, and the oil mafia which controls the import and export of fuel.
Although the new president promised that he would withdraw the subsidies, the step would be equal to stirring up a hornets’ nest. Phasing out these subsidies is understandable as they are a burden on the national economy. Ending them is also needed so that the money thus saved can be diverted to other sectors such as education, health and physical infrastructure, which are in tatters. But, at the same time, many analysts consider the provision of subsidies necessary as poverty is rampant in Indonesia. Therefore, in order to play safe, Widodo will have to make up for the substantial amount of subsidies through other economic measures. This will prove a Herculean task as the country’s fiscal deficit is already quite high and the World Bank has predicted that it might reach 2.4 percent of GDP.
Despite these and many other challenges, Widodo has the capacity and the conviction to deliver – only if the internal and external conditions remain stable enough for him to achieve his goals.