'Little Suharto'? Indonesian leader Widodo places Twitter personalities, allies in key posts, sparking backlash

Indonesian President Joko Widodo waits for Finnish President Sauli Niinisto at the presidential palace in Jakarta, Nov 3, 2015.
PHOTO: Reuters

Indonesian social media influencer Kristia Budhyarto has an army of nearly 100,000 followers on Twitter, and in the run-up to Joko Widodo’s re-election last year he repeatedly tweeted praise of the president’s proposed programmes and policies.

Last week, when he was appointed an independent commissioner of Pelni, the country’s largest state-owned shipping firm, it sparked a debate on whether the administration of Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, was rewarding supporters with plum posts even when they did not have relevant backgrounds.

The grumbling was also fuelled when minister for state-owned enterprises Erick Thohir, a former campaign manager of the president, appointed three other social media personalities and Widodo allies to top roles in October.

Former journalist Ulin Ni’am Yusron, who sports flowing black hair and was an avid online fan of Widodo during the last two elections, became a commissioner for the Indonesia Tourism Development Corporation.

Dyah Kartika Rini, who helped Widodo establish a social media volunteers network when he was running for Jakarta governor in 2012 and now runs a political consultancy called SpinDoctor Indonesia, is a commissioner for tollway operator Jasa Raharja.

Eko Sulistyo, who helped Widodo when he first transitioned from being a former furniture businessman to politics in the 2005 mayoral election in his hometown of Solo, Central Java, is a commissioner for the country’s sole electricity provider, PLN.

For Indonesia’s state-owned enterprises, the role of boards of commissioners is to supervise and provide input on the management of the companies. The boards themselves do not have the power to make decisions.

There are 142 SOEs in Indonesia, and an SOE commissioner’s monthly salary ranges from at least 80 million rupiah (S$7,700) to around 3 billion rupiah ($213,000).

Overall, at least 17 Widodo supporters, who were largely part of his official presidential campaign team last year, have been installed in the past year, according to news reports. They include the president’s current spokesman, Fadjroel Rachman, who is also a commissioner at construction company Waskita Karya.

Alamsyah Saragih, a member of the country’s Ombudsman, the government watchdog, told This Week in Asia : “This is a form of cronyism, which the government sees as something legal, but it actually shows a regression of statesmanship in Indonesia.

“There is no opposition in Indonesia. President Jokowi is helpless now that he has many ‘invoices’ from his supporters. As a result they’re being given a seat in the state-owned firms’ boards of commissioners,” he said, referencing arguments that Widodo had won over opposition factions in parliament to ensure a stable coalition that could pass laws easily.

In the past year, civic activists and the public in the world’s third-largest democracy have grown increasingly frustrated that Widodo’s focus on balancing vested political interests has held him back when it comes to making bold reforms.

They point to when he chose not to veto a parliamentary motion last year that resulted in a weakening of the country’s Corruption Eradication Commission, which has investigated politicians and government ministers in a bid to tamp down systemic graft.

Others argue that Widodo is beholden to the political party run by former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, which has backed him since his first presidential bid in 2014, and that he has not lived up to expectations that he would be a “man of the people” – a political outsider who would bring an end to the practices of elite politics that were a hallmark of authoritarian leader Suharto’s reign until his downfall in 1998.

Last year, Widodo, who has sought to win foreign investments to overhaul Indonesia’s creaking infrastructure and grow the economy from its current US$1.1 trillion (S$1.5 trillion) to US$7 trillion by 2045, appointed former presidential election contender Prabowo Subianto as defence minister. Prabowo’s party later joined Widodo’s coalition in the House of Representatives, boosting its majority to over 74 per cent of total seats.

“Jokowi doesn’t have a really strong supporters base. He relied on public figures and volunteers during the election to gain supporters, and he knew that he was obliged to repay them somehow,” said Sulfikar Amir, associate professor at the School of Social Sciences at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore.

“Jokowi then found himself trapped in [the] oligarchies’ agenda, that he thought were in line with his goals. He cannot critically assess this agenda, he now only focuses on increasing investments, and that brings us back to Suharto’s era. He is a little Suharto, in my opinion.”

Activists are particularly upset that Ulin got his role at the Tourism Development Corporation after a scandal last year. Following the divisive presidential election, Ulin posted on social media the identity of a man purportedly planning to behead the president, but this was later found to be false.

He had to apologise and erase the post, though screenshots of his post still can be found online.

Arya Sinulingga, who was Widodo’s re-election campaign spokesman last year and now holds a role as a member of Thohir’s special staff, said there was nothing wrong with installing Widodo surrogates as commissioners in state-owned firms.

In a statement in July quoted by the local news portal Suara, he said that all of the commissioners at state-owned firms, including Widodo’s supporters, were chosen because of their track records. Arya himself is a commissioner at state-owned aluminium producer Inalum.

The unhappiness over Widodo’s appointments is also a sign of the times, given the increasing anxiety over the economy – the country officially entered recession after 22 years of average annual growth of around 5 per cent, and unemployment is on the rise.

Previously, allies of former presidents were given top positions in state-owned firms, but this was done more selectively and, oftentimes, exclusively for elite cadres of the coalition parties.

Amir, the NTU professor, said the sense of unfairness sprung from a sense that the only thing the appointees needed to do to get sweet posts in state-owned firms was to brashly defend the president on social media.

He added: “Ordinary people who have been working hard just to get by are understandably upset to hear that these people are being paid a substantial amount of money to do basically nothing. The state-owned firms might also not be benefited by their appointments, because they do not have the executive powers to create an impact.”

According to an Ombudsman finding last year, 397 commissioners in state-owned firms, and 167 commissioners in state-owned companies’ subsidiaries, are also working as high-level officials in ministries or state agencies, which the government watchdog said is an unlawful practice in Indonesia.

“There hasn’t been any significant progress in eradicating cronyism in Indonesia since the Reformation ,” said Alamsyah, the Ombudsman member, referring to the 1998 student-led movement that ended Suharto’s decades of authoritarianism.

“The government hasn’t shown a strong determination to improve the management of state-owned firms, they still implement the old way of managing them, which is to use them as political cash cows.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.