January 26, 2015 – Indonesia’s new President Joko Widodo has won praise for bold economic reforms at the start of his term, but his man-of-the-people image has suffered after criticism of his commitment to human rights and fighting corruption.
Widodo, who will mark 100 days in power tomorrow, was elected president in July following a meteoric rise from a childhood in a riverbank slum. Known as Jokowi, the former furniture exporter won over the nation with his hands-on approach and humble background, and is the first Indonesian leader from outside the political and military elites.
The 53-year-old – who rose to national prominence as Jakarta governor – is the first Indonesian president since the 1998 downfall of Suharto without deep roots in the dictator’s three-decade rule. From making unpopular fuel subsidy cuts in the country of 250 million people, to responding to last month’s AirAsia crash, Widodo has had to hit the ground running, and most analysts say he has done well.
“He seems to have got off to a very good start,” Paul Rowland, a Jakarta-based political analyst said. “The government has achieved more in the last three months than the previous government did in three years.”
At the top of his to-do list was reducing fuel subsidies, which in the past gobbled up a vast chunk of the state budget and urgently needed to be cut to free up funds to boost Southeast Asia’s top economy, which is currently growing at a five-year low. Widodo wasted little time – less than a month after taking office, he announced a more than 30 per cent increase in petrol and diesel prices, and last month scrapped subsidies on petrol entirely.
Cutting the subsidies “has allowed the government the cash to undertake their projects, especially on the infrastructure front,” said Wellian Wiranto, an economist from Singapore-based OCBC Bank. Investors have long complained about Indonesia’s threadbare infrastructure, from potholed roads to ageing ports.
Widodo also won praise for his response to the crash of an AirAsia jet into the Java Sea as it flew from Indonesia’s Surabaya to Singapore, with the loss of 162 lives. He called for a review of air safety regulations and helped coordinate search-and-rescue efforts.
And the opposition-dominated parliament, which appeared such a threat at the start of his term, has been brought to heel. In September, the parliament voted to end direct elections for regional leaders, the system by which Widodo rose to power, in what was seen as a blow to the young democracy and to the new president himself.
But last week, lawmakers reversed that decision and voted to maintain the polls, after Widodo’s opponents were severely weakened by infighting. Nevertheless, some supporters who had high hopes for cleaner governance and a stronger focus on human rights have been left bitterly disappointed.
The execution earlier this month of six drug offenders, including five foreigners, caused a diplomatic storm, with Brazil and the Netherlands – whose citizens were among those put to death – recalling their ambassadors. “(Former president) Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said previously that Indonesia is heading towards a moratorium on capital punishment, but now we are going backwards,” said Hendardi, head of rights group the Setara Institute, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.
Widodo has been unapologetic, stressing there will be no clemency for those peddling narcotics while his country is gripped by a so-called “emergency” over drug use. Despite international pressure, Widodo is unlikely to face a backlash at home.
His tough stance on traffickers is not only shared by many of his countrymen, it also projects an image of decisiveness to critics who suggested he may lack the mettle needed in high office.
Another black mark has been a controversy over Widodo’s pick for the new national police chief, which critics say runs counter to his pledge to fight corruption in one of the world’s most graft-ridden countries. He nominated Budi Gunawan, but just days later the three-star general was named a corruption suspect by the country’s powerful anti-graft agency, which said it was investigating suspicious transactions in his bank accounts.
Following a public outcry, Widodo announced he would delay, although not cancel, Gunawan’s appointment. Some said Widodo was just dealing with the reality of Indonesian politics: the police chief is close to ex-president Megawati Sukarnoputri, head of his party, and the new president needs to keep her happy.
But this perception that Megawati pulls the strings behind the scenes has at times dogged the new president, who pledged to eschew the old party politics so familiar to Indonesians. The selection of his cabinet and more recently his advisory council only reaffirmed this suspicion, with Indonesian media quick to identify the business and political allegiances – not professional expertise – linking the appointees together.
Indonesia is no stranger to horse-trading politics, but those expecting Widodo to break with tradition and choose a team based on merit alone were left wanting. But while there is some disappointment, many are still optimistic that the man who represents a decisive break from Indonesia’s autocratic past is the right person to move the country forward.
Confronted with Widodo’s shortfalls, there’s a willingness to give the leader they endorsed just a few months ago more time to fulfil his ambitious agenda. “He is on his way,” Silitonga, a driver in Jakarta who goes by one name said. “I believe he will be successful in the future.”