Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Is Jokowi’s Election a Transformational Moment?

Photo: AP. Taken after Jokowi and his wife Iriana voted on July 9.

Joko Widodo’s election is an important political moment in Indonesia. It ensures Indonesia remains firmly on the democratic path. Certainly, it gives hope to the masses that a changing of the guard will mean a different kind of politics in Indonesia. It reassures jittery investors, who can trust that Indonesia is still open for business. And this, in turn, can allow for Indonesia’s economy to continue to grow and thrive. Jakarta’s friends in Southeast Asia can rest tight that Indonesia will likely continue to support regional stability and cohesion, particularly via ASEAN.

So it’s a seminal event, sure. But transformational? I’m not so sure. Can Jokowi change the system? Can he really clean up corruption? Can he transform Indonesia’s “national character,” as he has alluded to on the campaign trail?

I think back to Barack Obama’s election in 2008. That was an important moment, to be sure. Many Americans will long remember where they were when Obama surpassed the magic 270 mark in electoral votes. His election—in symbol and fact—said that the U.S. had fully moved beyond its violent and overtly racist past. No, it didn’t mean America had transitioned to a “post-racial” society, but it did say that the U.S. was clearly an increasingly more tolerant and accepting country, that it had come a long, long way since the days of slavery and racial killings and segregation and Jim Crow. And for minorities, particularly African-Americans, as you might expect, the election held special meaning. For them, it was a healing moment.

But once in office, Obama’s presidency has been more ordinary than extraordinary. Part of this is his and his administration’s own doing, of course. Team Obama’s passive and incoherent foreign policy, Obama’s reluctance to take the lead on important issues domestic issues, such as significant economic reform, the NSA scandals, and so on, have created the perception that he’s simply muddling through his time in office.

Yet he’s also had to contend with external forces and events outside of his control. For instance, from the beginning, Obama came into the White House with sky high hopes and great expectations, particularly from the political left. His background, age, energy and soaring oratory skills inspired millions to believe that a new day in American politics had arrived. But by this point, the American lefties and independents are disappointed and apathetic, which means Obama can’t rely on his base to provide the heavy lifting of providing momentum and grassroots support for policy and political change.

Additionally, Obama has faced an intransigent Republican Party and powerful interest groups, both of which have been ready and capable to resist his policy proposals. The political and economic remnants of dual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the 2008 financial calamity, combined, have placed constraints on American policy priorities and where and how it exercises its power.

All together, these factors have served as obstacles to Obama changing Washington significantly. As a result, he’s had to conserve his political capital to fight the fights he most prefers, like health care, and constantly operate in campaign mode, making public appearances to drum up enthusiasm and support for his programs. Overall, Washington hasn’t changed. The system is still highly leveraged by money, polarized and dreadfully slow to make policy.

This discussion isn’t so much about Obama as it is to highlight that widespread and deep political change is awfully difficult, no matter how good the intentions of a particular leader. Let’s turn back to Jokowi.

As a relatively young political outsider with a reputation for getting things done and “clean” politics, Jokowi has generated considerable expectations. The expectation is that he will apply the model of politics and policymaking that seemed to work so well in his prior positions in Solo and Jakarta to a national scale. Much, much easier said than done.

Here’s one example. One of Jokowi’s strengths has been his willingness to pay visits to all sorts of local government offices and businesses, so as to keep them in line and also provide a morale boost. It’s good politics, yes, but also a way to boost the production and development of localities. But as president, he simply doesn’t have the time to do this. He will have to alter his hands-on, personality-driven approach to governing. Will this limit his effectiveness in office? Will this disappoint his supporters and backers? If so, will they abandon the PDI-P and Jokowi in future elections?

But that’s not all. Jokowi will have to make deals to put together a political coalition capable of governing. Such deals raise the possibility that Jokowi’s policy preferences, including his wishes for a “cleaner” Indonesia, won’t necessarily be reflected in the ideas and proposals he puts forward. But even if they are, there’s another obstacle. Jokowi will face a strong opposition led by a formidable leader, Prabowo Subianto, assuming he wants that mantle. This opposition will likely try to undermine his legitimacy, which is already happening (!), and sink his policies. And plus, there are questions as to how Prabowo will handle losing the election. He could recede into the night once the election results are certified. But as a very connected guy with dubious motives, it’s also possible he could try to create instability and chaos, making life very difficult for Jokowi. Conceivably, Jokowi could spend the bulk of his time as president putting out brush fires caused by the opposition, and Prabowo in particular, rather than on the goals and objectives he wants to see accomplished.

Lastly, keep in mind that if Jokowi is serious about reform, he will eventually butt heads with vested interests that benefit from the status quo and resist change. This is especially the case with respect to corruption, which is endemic in Indonesia, from the top down to the bottom rungs on the political system. For years and years, political and economic actors, among many others, have been skimming off the top of a host of deals and agreements and transactions. This is how they have acquired and maintained their lot in life, something they want to preserve. Does Jokowi have the balance of power, so to speak, on his side to take on these vested interests? Or will he be outnumbered? If he is, his pledge to crack down on graft and corruption won’t be any more effective than SBY’s.

In sum, this post isn’t to downplay Jokowi’s election or to suggest that Jokowi can’t be a good president. He can. But we do need to be realistic about his chances to be a transformational figure in Indonesian politics. Just because he’s president doesn’t mean he has a clear ride to democratically impose his vision on the country.

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