Reality Bites Indonesia's Jokowi

The promises Indonesian President-elect Joko “Jokowi” Widodo made during the campaign for president seemed at times too good to be true, among them his insistence that his cabinet would consist of “professionals” rather than party hacks.

That is why it was a sad day for legions of Jokowi backers last week when it was announced he would give up the idea of building a meritocracy at the top and would instead appoint at least 16 political party leaders to his 34-member cabinet. The ratio is about the same as in the current government.

Insiders say that the presidential transition team was hopelessly deadlocked over how to proceed on cabinet appointments, which Jokowi wants to announce ahead of his October 20 inauguration.

There is intense pressure from his own Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) to name political allies to the cabinet; other parties in Jokowi’s coalition also want a share of the spoils.

“This is practical politics. Welcome to the real world,” said a Jokowi critic and former government official. “He has no choice.”

That may be the case, but the Jokowi decision is intensely disappointing for those of his supporters who thought they were ushering in a new era for Indonesia. “During his campaign, he made many beautiful and promising statements about changing the political landscape in Indonesia,” Hanta Yudha, the executive director the Poll Tracking Institute, a think tank, told the Jakarta Globe. “However, from the very beginning, I recognized the utopia of his promises — and it has been proven by the cabinet announcement.”

As far back as last December when I met him for a lengthy interview before he would even discuss becoming president, Jokowi spoke of the need for professional management in government as a way to cleanse the system of corruption. It was a central theme of his tenure as Jakarta governor and his appeal as a future president.

The idea certainly seems worthwhile. The current practice of trading political support for cabinet portfolios that are doled out to politicians like party favors has led to dispiriting rounds of corruption charges. With no transparent mechanism for funding political parties in Indonesia, it is an open secret that some cabinet ministers have used their positions to extract money that is then funneled to their parties and to their own bank accounts. It is a system that a corruption-weary public is tired of.

As the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono winds down, one cabinet minister from his Democratic Party is already in prison due to corruption linked to the construction of a sports stadium. His former religion minister, who was at the time chairman of an Islamist political party, faces graft charges related to overpricing and other irregularities during the annual haj pilgrimage.

Rumors are swirling about several other ministers facing charges eventually and one of the president’s closest advisors, former energy minister Jero Wacik, was forced to step down two weeks ago when he was named a suspect in an extortion scandal. The energy ministry scandal seems poised to go even higher, with anti-corruption investigators last week interrogating powerful retired general Djoko Suyanto, the coordinating security minister and a close ally of the president, in connection with the energy mess.

Despite the specter of corruption that haunts politicized cabinets, Jokowi has little choice but to concede to political pressure. His PDI-P has been out of power since 2004 and party chair Megawati Sukarnoputri has numerous political debts to pay back and party leaders who have been waiting in the wings for a chance to get back in power, not least of whom is her own daughter, Puan Maharani, who has presidential ambitions of her own.

Other parties that supported Jokowi will now almost certainly see key officials appointed to various cabinet posts and it will be up to the new president to try and keep his government honest.

Jokowi’s biggest problem, however, is the determined effort by losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto to derail his government even before it takes office. Prabowo, who has yet to properly concede defeat despite losing a court challenge against the result, has held his political coalition together in an apparent effort to hamstring the legislature and prevent the new president from governing effectively.

Defections from Prabowo were widely expected in the weeks after the polls, but they have not materialized. This is almost certainly because the Jokowi team has not been open for the usual business of horse trading that traditionally follows national elections here. As a result, Jokowi currently can count on having less than 40 per cent of the House of Representatives on his side, which could paralyze government.

With the logjam over principle now broken, it may be that the Golkar Party, the country’s largest and best organized political machine, may finally be lured toward the new administration.

The party, which was ex-dictator Suharto’s political vehicle, has never been in opposition and its former chairman, Jusuf Kalla, is Jokowi’s vice-president-elect. With the shackles off, Kalla, a veteran deal maker, is almost certainly on the phone to his old allies, despite his rivalry with current Golkar chairman Aburizal Bakrie, the coal tycoon.

Many Golkar politicians and others want to join the Jokowi government, but they have stayed away because they do not want to accept a new way of doing the government’s business. Political support does not come cheap in Indonesia, where powerbrokers still act as if democracy were a nuisance to be managed.

“Jokowi doesn’t stand a chance if he thinks he can go it alone,” said a politician currently standing on the sidelines of the transition. “He needs to give Golkar some cabinet seats. If he does, they will jump sides. It’s just a matter of making a deal.”

Reprinted from Edge Review, a weekly digital magazine on Southeast Asia