Today, Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, will be sworn in as the president of Indonesia. His election has ignited optimism among the populace, who believe that he will deliver much needed reforms to increase Indonesians’ standard of living.
Jokowi’s rise from humble origins and status as a political outsider are the main reasons for his victory and popular support. Despite growing up in a slum, Jokowi managed to attend Gadjah Mada University and graduate with a degree in forestry. After working briefly for a state enterprise in Aceh in the forestry business, Jokowi returned to his hometown of Surakarta to become a furniture salesman. There, his entrepreneurial success led him to run for mayor of Surakarta, which he won and served two terms. His success in Surakarta prompted him to run for governor of Jakarta, where he defeated the incumbent in 2012.
Many in the Indonesian populace believe that Jokowi is a hands-on politician who is committed to passing reforms. He regularly conducts impromptu visits with constituents (known as blusukan) to discuss concerns, cultivating relationships with marginalized communities. To ensure efficiency, he has also paid impromptu visits to bureaucrats, at one point firing an official caught playing video games on the job.
Despite the public’s optimism, Jokowi might find himself restricted in his ability to act once he assumes office. Indonesia finds itself with a slowing economy (at its slowest rate since 2009) and fiscal limits. Jokowi also has little experience in national politics, so he must be afforded time to become acclimated to parliamentary politics and to the elite interests that still dominate Jakarta.
Indeed, Jokowi’s greatest political challenge still remains: his popularity base is with the people, but his power base is not with existing political institutions. Corruption is rife, and Jokowi is not even the leader of his own party, The Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle. Former Prime Minister, Megawati Sukarnoputi, daughter of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, leads the party, which could lead to power struggles during Jokowi’s administration. Additionally, Indonesia ranks 114th on the Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International, alongside countries such as Vietnam and Nepal. Indeed, if Jokowi does not effectively tackle corruption as the people hope him to, then he might run the risk of rapidly losing legitimacy and popularity.
However, the greatest immediate national challenge to Jokowi is perhaps the fuel subsidy, which was supported by outgoing president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Fuel subsidies are quite common in developing countries as a way to guard against inflation and protect citizens against high energy prices. The fuel subsidy, however, is constantly under fire by economists, who cite Indonesia’s growing debt and inability to fund other projects such as education and infrastructure as failures of the policy.
Though Jokowi recognizes that reducing the fuel subsidy will be unpopular, he is determined to do so. As the Jokowi administration’s opening act, Jokowi hopes to reduce the budget deficit and spur the Indonesian economy by redirecting the funds to subsidies for farmers and fishermen. By freeing up the budget, Jokowi also hopes to have more room to implement greater healthcare coverage and develop civil infrastructure.
Jokowi has little experience on the foreign policy front. It remains to be seen what stance he’ll take towards Indonesia’s neighbors. The two most critical issues to be immediately addressed are China’s ambiguity in regards to the Natuna Islands and redefining relations with Australia following last year’s espionage scandal. While Indonesia is not currently in a dispute with China, part of China’s territorial claim includes small areas of Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, leading to suspicion and caution. As for Australia, the spying scandal only seems to confirm the Indonesian public’s suspicion that its southern neighbor does not truly respect them. Yudhoyono could not even get an apology from Canberra, leaving the public frustrated. Jokowi inherits this soured relation with Australia, and although the two can cooperate in many issues including human trafficking, it will be difficult to mend this relationship while still preserving Indonesia’s dignity.
Indonesia also finds itself at a critical geopolitical junction. In addition to an assertive China making provocative maneuvers in the South China Sea, the US and India are also reasserting their influence in the Pacific. Indonesia must correctly manage these global power dynamics, while remaining a regional leader. Its ongoing strategy seems centered on reasserting ASEAN’s importance as an effective regional bloc. As ASEAN’s largest and most influential member, Indonesia needs to prove that ASEAN can tackle pressing issues, such as conflicts in the South China Sea and turmoil in Thailand. Indonesia could leverage its role as a neutral mediator to take charge in ASEAN’s search for regional solutions, countering prevailing notions that ASEAN is merely a “talk-shop.”
Indonesia has the potential to reach prosperity, and maybe even become a regional leader. It has the fourth largest population in the world. It is a vibrant and multi-ethnic democracy, despite being burdened by the shadows of the Asian Financial Crisis, ongoing violence against minorities and corrupt political elites. That this country would peacefully elect a humble man can only be a cause for careful optimism, even if Jokowi’s future challenges seem insurmountable on his inauguration day.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff, editors, or governors.
Correction: Indonesia’s population figure was updated to reflect more accurate data on 10/21/2014.