Be careful what you wish for, Indonesia

Be careful what you wish for, Indonesia
Indonesian President Joko Widodo greets supporters before a bike ride in Jakarta on Nov. 30, 2014.

One hundred days ago, on Oct 20, Joko Widodo surfed into office as president of Indonesia on a tidal wave of expectations. Voters believed he would announce a cabinet of new faces -- technocrats rather than crusty, old-time politicians -- who would make life better for the poor. Political analysts expected that he would be stymied by the old-timers. No one predicted the actual course of events: that Widodo would bend the old guard to his purpose, then slash away at his popularity with sabers of his own making.

On reflection, last July's presidential election should have alerted us to just how difficult Widodo would find it to please the Indonesian electorate, which was faced with a stark choice. One candidate, Prabowo Subianto, was a strongman deeply embedded in the political aristocracy that has controlled Indonesia since independence. Forty-seven per cent of Indonesians chose him precisely because they favoured his paternalistic, decisive, top-down style of leadership, and because they knew he had the political connections to make things work.

The second candidate, Widodo, was a modest political outsider with very fragile support networks who sought to achieve equitable goals by listening, discussing and compromising, not by fiat. Fifty-three per cent of voters chose Widodo precisely because they were tired of political cronyism, because they wanted to be listened to, and because they trusted him to change the way things work. Curiously, though, they also seem to want quick decisions and decisive leadership. An outsider who can impose his will through institutions controlled by the very oligarchy that he has pledged to decimate? It was never likely.

A fraught start

Widodo fell at the first hurdle in terms of cronyism, naming a cabinet that included many old-timers who were woven tightly into the tapestry of national patronage. This dented his popularity, but it was a necessary move. Indonesia is one of the most diverse countries on earth, and a dozen political parties are represented in parliament; to keep its kaleidoscope of geographical, ethnic, religious, social and economic constituencies in balance, not to mention achieving any measure of heft in the legislature, all leaders have had to cut deals, whatever they may have said on the campaign trail.

Some of Widodo's appointments, notably to posts critical for effective reform, such as those of attorney general and minister of justice, were particularly disappointing. But anyone who really expected a cabinet free of politically imposed deadwood misunderstands the nature of democracy in Indonesia.

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