Jokowi's 'working Cabinet' in for hard slog

Jokowi's 'working Cabinet' in for hard slog

President Joko Widodo has dubbed his new team a "working Cabinet" and wants it to get cracking.

But he will have to break away from the shackles of history associated with the term.

The first time an Indonesian Cabinet was dubbed a "working Cabinet", in 1959, it lasted all of eight months.

There would be three more short-lived working Cabinets before founding president Sukarno disbanded the fourth and last bearing that name in 1964.

No doubt the economic and political conditions then were vastly different.

But at a time when key figures in Mr Joko's Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) are reiterating Sukarnoist ideals, the President's toughest challenge will be to get his Cabinet to help, not hobble, his plans and programmes.

Mr Joko did set a stern tone at his first Cabinet meeting on Monday, when he told all 34 ministers to "step on the gas", set aside their egos and remember that they are in the job to carry out the President's electoral promises, and unclog bottlenecks in administration.

The tasks before them are significant.

In politics and law enforcement, they have to preserve stability and strengthen the rule of law, from police and prosecutors to the courts and anti-graft agencies.

As for the economy, they need to keep growth well above the 5 per cent the country is tipped to grow by this year, revive manufacturing, industry and agriculture, and prepare for the onset of the ASEAN Economic Community by the end of next year.

In the area of human development, they need to ensure access to universal education and health-care coverage and help tackle the widening income gap, among others.

And in the maritime sector, they need to drastically improve inter-island connectivity, improve the lot of fishermen and coastal settlers by paying greater attention to fisheries, and develop marine and coastal tourism.

Critically, the government has to reduce the swelling fuel subsidy bill, so that the savings can be redirected to the poorest farmers and fishermen to help them become more productive, to education and health, and just as importantly, towards infrastructure improvements.

Even if the administration can move only halfway on these measures, the improvements they will bring about should be considerable.

Yet, well laid-out plans will go only so far in a system that, for all the cordial niceties of the past week since Mr Joko's inauguration, remains fundamentally divided between the President's coalition - that still commands only a minority of seats in Parliament, for now - on the one hand, and his election rival Prabowo Subianto's Red-White coalition on the other.

"Though they may seem quiet, it does not mean they are acquiescent," veteran political analyst Sukardi Rinakit wrote in his regular column for Kompas newspaper on Tuesday.

"Their existence as an opposition remains. And because of that, when a member of this 'working Cabinet' makes a slight trip-up in policy implementation, they will surely be moving targets and attacked to help lift the image of the opposing coalition."

But the toughest battles ahead for Mr Joko look to be the internal ones.

As Dr Sukardi puts it, the key thing is for the President and his Cabinet to safeguard a three-way balance - among policy aims, the wishes of volunteers and the people who backed Mr Joko's bid for the top job, as well as Parliament.

Right now, the composition of the Cabinet - to be specific, the inclusion of a number of military figures and businessmen deemed by civil society to be inappropriate - has not inspired confidence among many of the volunteers who turned out to backed Mr Joko during the election and after.

It is crucial to maintain a high level of public support for their new President, for once this is gone, analysts say, the government can be pounced upon by an opposition-dominated Parliament that may be more ruthless than the one it replaces.

To their credit, the leaders of this opposition have tempered their criticism of their new President, and fears that they would go all out to impeach him have largely subsided.

But Mr Joko and his key ministers are aware that those heated political tensions would not have dissipated so easily.

Already, some of his weak spots and ominous portents of internal conflict ahead surfaced in the delayed announcement of the Cabinet line-up, where Mr Joko had to compromise with party leaders and settle for second best, if not less, due to pressures from various quarters.

And those who feel they have been left out or sidelined will not likely stay still either.

Expect more knives to be out for Mr Joko, and more stumbling blocks to trip him up, as he and his team get to work.

In introducing his Cabinet, Mr Joko also said it was a team that would work for the country for the next five years.

Amid the inevitable political disruptions that will crop up, Mr Joko and his Cabinet have to stay focused on the long list of tasks before them if they are to stay on that long, let alone win re-election in 2019.

And from time to time, they should remind themselves of this vignette of history more than five decades ago: The longest "working Cabinet" there was lasted barely two years, from 1960 to 1962.

Reality, checked.

This article was first published on Nov 1, 2014.
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