Indonesia’s Jokowi Suddenly in Political Danger

Indonesian President Joko Widodo is suddenly finding his presidency in danger from several directions, in a troubling coda to his triumphant April re-election, in which he swamped his opponent, Prabowo Subianto, by a 55.5 to 44.5 percent margin.

The 58-year old Jokowi, as he is known, is expected to name his second-term cabinet on October 20. But he is finding himself isolated even among his own followers, with Megawati Sukarnoputri, the head of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, to which he nominally belongs, serving notice in a fiery speech to a party convention in August that she and she alone is in charge.

In that speech she declared her opposition to the growing sentiment for shariah law which has been endorsed by Ma’ruf Amin, the Indonesian cleric that Jokowi picked as his running mate in the April election to ward off unfounded reports that he was a closet Christian.

The trouble blew into public view when the president issued a letter in September endorsing a bill in the House of Representatives emasculating the power of the Corruption Eradication Commission, the country’s most revered public institution and a bulwark against Indonesia’s suffocating corruption, confounding followers who had expected him to use his power to kill it. The bill is to go in effect later this month unless the president issues a Perppu, or letter in lieu of the law delaying its implementation.

Widespread protests have erupted across the country demanding that the KPK’s formidable powers be preserved, with the president’s support among the wider population beginning to evaporate over his equivocation. More than 1,500 people have been arrested amid violence, with observers in Jakarta predicting further unrest.

According to John McBeth, writing in Asia Times, Jokowi told civic leaders demanding that he reverse the KPK bill that his only support is from his law minister, Yasonna Laoly, who is a member of the PDI-P, which has gone on record saying he would be “disrespecting” parliament if he does issue the Perppu blocking its implementation.

Jokowi’s reputation as a reformer, won by his stint as mayor of Surakarta, a smaller east Java city and later as Jakarta governor, is now under deep threat. Students are demanding the Perppu at the same time that Surya Paloh, a media baron and general chairman of the National Democrat Party or Nasdem, is threatening impeachment if he blocks the bill. It is also uncertain if he could even prevail in the house or whether his Perppu would be overridden.

He faces trouble as well from the religious flank after he asked the House to drop legislation -- which he had formerly endorsed – which would have criminalized unmarried sex and penalized gay and lesbian relations, among other stringent provisions. The bill had been backed by Jokowi’s own vice president, currently the chairman of the Ulema Council of Indonesia, the country’s biggest Islamic organization.

It was Ma’ruf who played a major role in driving Jokowi’s wingman, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, from the governorship of Jakarta and subsequently being jailed on trumped up blasphemy charges. Ahok was subsequently embraced by Megawati at the August 2019 party conclave in Bali, setting up a direct conflict with Ma’ruf in her determination to turn back rising Islamic ferment.

Women’s groups and rights activists demanded that the criminal code revision containing the sex penalties be withdrawn, further eroding Jokowi’s street cred as a reformer when he delayed his decision to kill it. As it is, it could be introduced in a year.

Megawati’s loyalty to Jokowi has always been fraught. She forced him to sit in the audience at an earlier party conclave in Bali at the beginning of his first presidential term in 2015, lecturing the crowd on her clout as the head of the PDI-P. This month she suddenly engineered the appointment of her daughter, Puan Maharani to head the house of representatives despite the daughter’s lack of legislative experience and shadows over her reputation. Setya Novanto, the former speaker who was put in prison for 15 years by the KPK, of having taken US$500,000 in bribes over the implementation of a corruption-riddled smart identification card that the KPK I also investigating.

Megawati is said to be attempting to clear the way for Puan to become Indonesia’s president at some point.

The question is whether the president’s limited attempts at reform are now endangered – by the PDI-P as much as anybody, given its ration of corrupt political figures – although a large percentage of the political establishment are solidly behind the limitation of the powers of the KPK, and thus the danger in the House of Representatives.

The powers of the crooked class were threatened earlier this year when the president designated his law minister to sign a mutual legal assistance agreement to seek to track money laundered out of the country and parked in Swiss banks. Jokowi also earlier this year appointed the respected 55-year-old economist Destry Damayanti as senior deputy governor of Bank Indonesia, the country’s central bank, believed to be a signal that the administration was serious about cleaning up the corruption-ridden financial system. Singapore banks are the repository of tens of billions of dollars of money stolen by Indonesian politicians and bankers. Any attempt to get that money back runs against the wishes of a startling percentage of Indonesia’s political and financial ruling class.

It appears that Jokowi’s clout will be tested with the naming of his new cabinet. He had earlier promised a wide range of new faces to change the direction of the government. The makeup of the cabinet, due on October 20, is likely to be a harbinger of the direction of the country as well. But the makeup of the forces arrayed against him – Muslims wanting stricter religious law, civil society wanting a cleanup of corruption, his own party ignoring him, a corrupt political class out for it own gain, all of which leaving him isolated as he said, doesn’t bode well.