Crunch time for new Indonesia president

Crunch time for new Indonesia president

Indonesia's President-elect Joko Widodo has huge tasks on his hands as he prepares to formally take power on Oct 20.

To begin with, Jakarta, the capital city which he has been governor of for just two years, is symbolic of the coming crunch-test of his leadership.

It is under threat of being overwhelmed by traffic gridlock and submerged by rising sea levels due to climate change.

Jakarta's headaches epitomise Indonesia's nationwide infrastructure problems - a major national shortcoming that the President-elect has promised to overcome. Tackling these effectively will help Indonesia's most popular president since founding president Sukarno see through his first term.

But the more immediate challenges facing the incoming president are twofold at the strategic level. The first is to form a competent Cabinet, which he can do officially only after he is sworn in but is already laying the groundwork for.

The second is to assemble a transition team to help him ease into the presidency. Especially critical is assembling his Cabinet. Although he won the July presidential election, he leads a minority coalition, which means his administration will be a minority government.

Despite his immense popularity, his group of four parties controls only 37 per cent of the Parliament elected in April. The other 63 per cent is controlled by a coalition led by his defeated rival Prabowo Subianto. Unless something is done before October, the strong Prabowo-led opposition could be a constant obstacle to Mr Joko's government.

That is why Mr Joko has been manoeuvring to restructure the political landscape by winning over some members of Mr Prabowo's coalition.

The primary target is Golkar, the second biggest party after Mr Joko's own Indonesian Democratic Party - Struggle (PDI-P) led by Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri, a former president and daughter of Sukarno.

If Golkar defects, the Joko government will immediately gain a simple majority in Parliament - enough to give some stability to the administration. But this has proven to be more difficult than expected. Mr Joko's goal is to contain or accommodate Mr Prabowo. The President-elect's strategy has even been couched in terms of rekonsiliasi, or reconciliation, to unite the world's fourth most populous country.

While Mr Joko's advisers started off with confidence that Golkar could be swung rather easily, what with incoming vice-president Jusuf Kalla being a former Golkar chairman, Mr Joko himself of late has been talking less of Golkar and more about getting other parties in.

This suggests the increasing difficulty in winning over the former ruling party, primarily due to resistance from current chairman Aburizal Bakrie.

The original plan of the pro-Joko faction in Golkar was to replace Mr Bakrie first, which clearly is not so easy.

In forming his Cabinet, Mr Joko's strategy right from the start has been to avoid the mistakes of previous presidents by disavowing political horse-trading. He has thus refrained from promising Cabinet seats to parties in his coalition in exchange for political support.

While this has freed him to assemble a professional team of ministers, it has also started to create tensions in his own coalition where some of his allies expect to be rewarded.

Mr Joko set up a transition team even while he was facing the legal challenge from Mr Prabowo. This team comprises some of the pillars behind the Joko machinery and is led by former trade minister Rini Soemarno. The appointment of someone with close ties to party chief Megawati suggests that the former president still wields strong influence behind the scenes.

The transition team has a three-pronged goal:

To fulfil Mr Joko's campaign promises quickly by focusing on seven critical areas - education, universal health, economy, public transport and communication, agriculture, maritime, and housing;

To redesign the "architecture" of the Cabinet - possibly through mergers of ministries, streamlining and restructuring - while leaving the names of potential ministers to the new president, who has the final say in its composition;

To prepare for major legal liabilities that may be inherited from the outgoing Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono government, such as those arising from ownership disputes with international mining companies. These disputes followed the introduction of a mining law that reflects the growing resource nationalism in Indonesia. Two major Western mining firms have taken their cases to international arbitration.

Mr Joko's biggest headache will be tackling energy subsidies. There was talk that outgoing President Yudhoyono has agreed to cut part of the subsidies and raise fuel prices before handing over power. In other words, Mr Joko aims to deflect some of the unpopularity in a move that reflects a certain shrewdness on the part of the new leader as he navigates the path that lies ahead in his presidency.

In short, Mr Joko is fully aware of the major challenges staring in his face. On his part, Mr Prabowo may well choose to fight another day - by contesting the next presidential election in 2019.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. A version of this commentary appeared in World Review, a Liechtenstein-based website offering analysis on political and economic events.

This article was published on Aug 28 in The Straits Times.

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