Commentary: Critics Should Give Jokowi Some Credit


JUNE 09, 2015

An unfortunate by-product of democracy is electoral disappointment. For some, disappointment that their candidate did not triumph; for others, disappointment at the performance of the successful candidate that they did support. Often that latter feeling is acute because new leadership was elected after irreversible frustration felt towards its predecessor.

In this scenario the electoral focus becomes change. We wait hopefully for evidence that the new government will be better than the last (or at least different).

These are exactly the disappointments coming to the fore in Indonesia at the moment. And arguably this illustrates how far democracy here has developed — there is rarely a democratic election globally that is not followed by some amount of political disillusionment. However, it may also be a function of unrealistic expectations for Joko Widodo's government that ignore the context of his victory last year.

The original excitement about his election was centered on the idea that finally Indonesia would be represented by someone from outside the historic political elite. An inevitable result has seen Joko directly take on this elite, usually with limited support from his party or coalition partners, indeed sometimes facing their opposition. To make matters worse for the minority government — the ruling coalition still only accounts for 44 percent of the House of Representatives — this struggle has coincided with a slowdown in growth, a pick-up in inflation and a delayed start to the long-awaited acceleration in infrastructure spending.

That these are all issues that Joko inherited from the inaction of the previous government and the necessary tightened monetary policy adopted by Bank Indonesia is largely ignored by his detractors. Indeed, it has become fashionable to focus only on the negatives, particularly with the foreign press, which has most recently lazily linked the Bali Nine executions with the power struggle at the top of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), Joko's party.

Opinion polls, though, indicate a similar impatience from the electorate. A survey by the Indonesian Discussion and Public Opinion Study Group (kedaiKOPI) showed Joko's approval rating had fallen to 31 percent last month, a further decline from the 42 percent reported in a January study by the Indonesia Survey Circle (LSI).

While the performance of Joko's government is at least partly to blame, even its most controversial moments have shown some signs of progress.

The most prominent example was the president's handling of Budi Gunawan's nomination to head the National Police after the latter was declared a graft suspect by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). As confrontation flared between the two institutions, the president eventually intervened by withdrawing Budi's candidacy and suspending the leadership of the KPK. However, his anti-corruption credentials and independence were questioned again as he later allowed the inauguration of Budi — a close associate of PDI-P chairwoman Megawati Soekarnoputri — as deputy police chief.

The resulting disappointment at Joko's perceived submission to vested interests and concern at the emasculation of the KPK was understandably widespread. The president, though, has since come some way to rectifying this controversy and re-empowering the organization.

Last week, he appointed Bank Mandiri economist Destry Damayanti to lead the team charged with selecting the next permanent KPK leadership. The difference between this nine-women committee and its equivalent in 2011 is clear: whereas the predecessor was chaired by a law minister, Patrialis Akbar from the National Mandate Party (PAN), its successor hosts no politicians.

The slow pace of bureaucratic reform may be symptomatic of Joko's presidency to date, but we should not dismiss the signs of progress.

The first such sign was the cabinet composition, with the number of professional ministers increased to 20 — and all were vetted by the KPK and the Financial Transaction Reports and Analysis Center (PPATK).

The governance improvement continued with state-owned enterprise (SOE) management overhauls, which saw proven and reform-orientated outsiders appointed, for example at Pertamina and PLN, Indonesia's two largest SOEs which dominate its troublesome energy sector. This was part of the significant progress made by Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Sudirman Said, who has also streamlined the negotiation process between PLN and power plant operators to boost investment in the nation's electricity infrastructure.

Investor appreciation of these improvements is indisputable with $9 billion of foreign direct investment pledged to the Indonesian electricity sector in the first three months of this year — ten times the level in the same period in 2014.

Perhaps the most laudable achievement thus far, however, was the fuel subsidy cut.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Joko's predecessor, refused to raise fuel prices last year as part of his handover of power. His successor proved to be more decisive, acting within a month of his inauguration by increasing prices 30 percent before removing the subsidy altogether on Jan. 1. this year.

This unpopular move, after which Joko's own party ostracized him, will allow for some $9 billion in extra infrastructure spending. But there is more to this measure than the fiscal space it created: with it, Joko showed the bravery necessary to take on the oil and gas mafia that has benefited for years from the country's fuel subsidy scheme. He did what other politicians rarely do in Indonesia — or globally — he risked his own political capital for the long-term benefit of his country.

Moving away from the energy sector, there is unlikely to be a simpler way to illustrate the improved governance in Indonesia than Joko's decision to remove the $1.5 billion allocation in Yudhoyono's original budget for government meetings in the fiscal year 2015.

Joko understandably stated that there was no justification for spending this amount — the equivalent of the total estimated cost of the Jakarta MRT project — on government meetings. These meetings will now happen in government offices, allowing the funds to be reallocated to priority programs such as infrastructure spending, which saw a 58 percent year-on-year increase in the revised budget.

There have been a number of other notable achievements: direct elections of regional leaders have been restored, a one-stop centralized licensing service for investors put in place and ground broken on a number of infrastructure projects across Indonesia — most recently for the Makassar port and industrial zone in South Sulawesi last week.

This is not to say that Joko's first seven months have been an unqualified success. However, commentators must not allow a long-frustrated yearning for change to develop into a race to dismiss the potential of Joko's presidency. Slow progress should not be confused with no progress.

Charles Maynard is an economics graduate from Oxford University now working in Jakarta. Contact him at