Indonesia’s Jokowi Bobs Upright

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo may be the beneficiary of an astonishing trifecta, according to analysts in Jakarta who say that political rival Aburizal Bakrie, the head of Golkar, the country’s oldest political party, and Megawati Sukarnoputri, who heads Joko’s own Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, have been neutralized and that major parties may yet consolidate behind him.

Fears that the opposition, led by Golkar and Gerindra, would dominate the legislature and derail the Joko presidency have not materialized. Instead Megawati and PDIP have proven to be the biggest political roadblock facing the president.

Now, changes at the top in Golkar could bring that party into line with Joko and also help move Gerindra, headed by ex-General and losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, and the Democratic Party of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, into the government’s camp, at least on a de-facto basis.

Prabowo and Joko have publicly kissed and made up for the cameras. The National Democrats, headed by Bakrie foe and ex-Golkar member Surya Paloh, is already in Joko’s coalition.

Ex-President Megawati, who in effect loaned her party to Jokowi, as he is known, to get him elected last July, and then demanded the right to name a preponderance of his cabinet and government officials, may no longer hold sway when the dust clears.

The key is Golkar, which has been tearing itself apart since late last year with two rival chairmen, Agung Laksono, allied with Jokowi, and Bakrie, the billionaire businessman who for years has used Golkar and government favors to support his business interests, battling for control. Bakrie’s decision to support Prabowo, the losing presidential candidate in the 2014 election, caused the rift, which has only deepened.

In addition, Golkar, the political chariot of the late strongman Suharto, who ran the country for 31 years until 1998, has never been in opposition and its tendency is to side with the presidency. Jokowi’s natural allies within the Golkar orbit include former Golkar Chairman Jusuf Kalla, his vice president, Surya Paloh and even Prabowo and Yudyhoyono, both of whom left Golkar to start their own parties.

Having alienated much of his party in the presidential election, Bakrie attempted to ram through his own re-election as party chief, but ran into opposition from Agung Laksono, an acerbic former speaker of the House of Representatives and later Coordinating Minister for People’s Welfare. The two held separate conventions which elected each as competing party chairmen. But in a move widely criticized at the time, the National Democrats, headed by Surya, an Indonesian media tycoon, were given the power by Jokowi to name the attorney general and the justice minister, who now may get to “choose” Agung as the winner and settle the dispute through government channels.

By pushing the nomination of Police General Budi Gunawan, famously known as “Bagman Budi,” her former adjutant and close personal friend, to become national police chief in the face of Jokowi’s apparent opposition, Megawati seems to have rushed too quickly into what she might have thought was a political vacuum but looks more like a one-way fish trap.

She appears to have overplayed her hand. The Corruption Eradication Commission immediately branded Budi a corruption suspect after his nomination, precipitating a major confrontation between the KPK, as the agency is known, and the national police that is continuing.

Ultimately Jokowi dropped Budi as the candidate and instead named Badrodin Haiti, the acting police chief, as his pick for the job. But at the same time he suspended two leaders of the KPK whom the police had named as suspects for various offenses. In the aftermath of the Budi mess, members of the PDIP have even called for Jokowi’s impeachment.

Jokowi has clearly lost ground with supporters who hoped he was a die-hard reformer and saw Budi's nomination as a betrayal. But the former small-town mayor may be playing a long game for control of the government. If he is, a reform agenda may yet be consolidated, assuming he gets real support and not just lip service as a result of the political gamesmanship underway.

“The two most unpleasant people in Indonesian politics, Megawati and Bakrie, may finally be neutralized,” a western source told Asia Sentinel.

That doesn’t mean Jokowi is anywhere close to reclaiming the political cachet that brought him to the presidency after an enthusiastic single term as Jakarta’s governor, during which he unleashed a barrage of programs to clean up what had been regarded as an ungovernable megalopolis and made public officials accountable.

His six-month stint as president has been marked by significant compromise with a political establishment that is among the most corrupt in Asia. He has also alienated Australia and other countries with his stated intention to execute foreign drug offenders, most of them low-ranking mules, or couriers who have been in prison for years. He hasn’t reversed his actions on the KPK, and there are widespread fears that the anti-corruption organization, the most effective law enforcement body in the country, may be permanently emasculated. Political observers are asking why the president doesn't bring the police to heel.

Behind the scenes, however, investors say some ministries are moving effectively to engage with the private sector and clear away at least some roadblocks. The lifting of a wasteful fuel subsidy has also freed up funds for badly needed infrastructure but the political circus has been a distraction. “We hope the political smoke clears,” said a Western business source. “Then we may see what this government is all about.”