Brutal reality check for Jokowi

The late-night, last-minute bid by outgoing MPs to turn back the clock on Indonesia's democratisation by revoking direct elections for local leaders is a brutal reality check for President-elect Joko "Jokowi" Widodo and his deputy Jusuf Kalla.

With Mr Joko's Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) and its allies controlling just 37 per cent of seats in the incoming House so far, he will have an uphill battle pushing through unpopular, yet needed, reforms, even if widely backed by the man in the street.

But that is precisely what his opponents want.

If the Constitutional Court rejects an imminent challenge to the new law on electing district heads - effectively upholding it - governors, regents and mayors will soon mostly be from parties that backed defeated presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, who call themselves the Red-White Coalition after the colours of the national flag.

This is because these district chiefs will be elected by their respective assemblies. And Golkar and the three Muslim parties in the grouping - United Development Party (PPP), Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and National Mandate Party (PAN) - together with Mr Prabowo's Gerindra, now command a majority of seats in some two-thirds of these local Parliaments.

This makes it harder for outsiders like Mr Joko to rise to prominence and thereby threaten the existing political elite. Observers also fear the indebted district chiefs could block government projects and outside investment in their districts.

Said analyst Bawono Kumoro of The Habibie Centre: "This is clearly part of the Red-White Coalition's grand scenario to create political disturbances throughout the Jokowi-Jusuf Kalla administration over the next five years."

On one level, this tactic appears motivated by revenge over its loss in the July presidential polls.

That loss saw the coalition - where Golkar chief Aburizal Bakrie and PAN founder Amien Rais are key players - last month reverse its earlier support for direct polls and champion indirect ones instead.

Analysts say many seasoned politicians see a new crop of credible regional leaders like Mr Joko as a threat to business-as-usual, with their commitment to reform the bureaucracy and fight graft.

"It seems they want regional leaders who will accommodate their projects and business interests, who will support their political agenda and maintain their influence for the next five years," said Mr Vishnu Juwono of the University of Indonesia.

"It is also a signal to Jokowi that he is going to face a sophisticated, disciplined, political machine."

But many note that Indonesia's political arrangements have been fairly fluid, and political consultant Dimas Oky Nugroho said the PDI-P and its partners need to be more adept at lobbying other political forces to ensure a stable Jokowi administration.

Paramadina University's Dr Djayadi Hanan feels Mr Joko's team needs to consider more serious political negotiations, especially as its chance to win this latest battle was possible in the last few days.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's Democratic Party could have been on their side, but its MPs walked out early yesterday morning.

With Mr Joko apparently failing to make any significant concession in sharing a slice of the political power pie with the Democrats, let alone with smaller parties like PPP and PAN, any deal was off.

His opponents are milking their win.

Yesterday, Mr Prabowo drummed up nationalist rhetoric, telling incoming coalition MPs foreign media had attacked their decision to scrap direct polls.

"What business do they have running Indonesia? Hundreds of millions of our people are under the poverty line. Do they care for us?" he said.

"They want Indonesia to be a cash cow that cannot die because it has to be milked, looked after, fattened. Fed grass, but with a rope through the nose."

This article was first published on Sept 27, 2014.
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