Commentary: Why Jokowi's Supporters Start to Doubt the 'Indonesian Obama'


FEBRUARY 25, 2015

After a narrow victory that brought someone from outside the country's old guard into office, some supporters of President Joko Widodo are starting to become disillusioned with their champion.

Not long ago, Jokowi — as he is popularly known — was riding a horse-drawn carriage on Jakarta's main streets with thousands of people celebrating his inauguration. International observers compared Jokowi, who promised clean government and human rights protection , to US President Barack Obama in his rise to power.

When other countries in the region, such as Thailand, are facing political crises and others are still dealing with political monopolies, Jokowi was the symbol of a grassroots democratic movement. His supporters — not his party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) — helped him beat former general Prabowo Subianto, who served in Suharto's dictatorship.

But four months into his presidency, people are appalled by Jokowi's weakness in preventing efforts by the notoriously corrupt National Police and political elites to undermine the highly respected Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK).

Will this scandal lose Jokowi the support base that brought him to power? Will the people's grassroots movement sustain their power to challenge the corrupt old guard for years to come?

Post-Suharto Indonesia is dominated by oligarchs, consisting of political elites connected to Suharto's New Order regime. They are dispersed in all sectors, including political parties, the legislature and business.

Jokowi's win was a show of people's power to challenge the oligarchy. He came to power mostly on the back of support from volunteer groups, known as relawan . These groups are in a loose alliance, consisting of many elements. It's not a solid entity.

Sociologically and politically, there are at least three elements in the volunteer groups. Although this largely describes Jakarta-based supporter groups, other areas have similar elements.

First is the former activists involved in the 1990s pro-democracy movement that helped to topple Suharto. The second group is made up of activists from various nongovernmental organizations ranging from the antigraft movement to farmers and indigenous community groups. The third consists of artists and people in the creative sector. This group is relatively less experienced in politics than the first two.

Those in the first two groups have specific political agendas. They seek to free Indonesia from possible military domination and want the state to observe human-rights principles. With their long experience in the democracy movement, they are generally the main organizers of volunteers. They include as many social groups as possible to create a bigger movement.

While the first two groups have no real popular support, the third group is the magnet of the relawan movement, despite a lack of political experience. The popularity of artists on social media succeeded in drawing more supporters and followers.

It was this group that attracted Indonesian citizens from all walks of life to support Jokowi. They used music, posted memes on social media, created a series of cartoons on Jokowi and made T-shirts and all kinds of campaign merchandise.

But unlike the first and second group, the artists had no specific political agenda. They want a better Indonesia, with no firm vision of what "a better Indonesia" should look like.

Four months into office, the Indonesian public is upset with how Jokowi is dealing with the KPK versus National Police saga. In the past month, the police have tried to weaken the KPK by criminalizing two of its commissioners on flimsy charges. Prior to this, the KPK started a case against a candidate for the police chief post, Budi Gunawan — a former aide of PDI-P chairwoman Megawati Soekarnoputri.

Last week, Jokowi canceled Budi's candidacy and nominated caretaker police chief Badrodin Haiti as his candidate. The president also appointed three acting KPK commissioners to replace Abraham Samad and Bambang Widjojanto.

But many consider Jokowi's move too little, too late and as a compromise. The South Jakarta District Court last week exonerated Budi in a controversial and unprecedented pretrial hearing. The judge ruled that the antigraft agency could not investigate Budi because, as head of police human resources, he was not a law enforcer, nor an Echelon I public official. This ruling has now opened a way for graft suspects to avoid criminal prosecution through pretrial motions.

Taufiqurachman Ruki, Jokowi's choice of acting chairman of the antigraft agency, is a former KPK chairman who, during his tenure, never tried to tackle corruption in the police. His first move as acting KPK chief is reportedly to get police detectives to be redeployed as KPK investigators.

Despite public disappointment with Jokowi, there are three reasons he will not lose his support base due to this episode.

First, the president's supporters are not united in their response to the KPK-National Police saga. The former activists predominantly support the KPK and they are vocal in showing their support in a "Save KPK" campaign. They have rallied in front of the KPK headquarters. They are also expressing their opinions through social media.

But the third group of the president's supporters are hesitant to criticize him. They prefer to wait and see what he will do next. They think it's too early to judge Jokowi's presidency.

One reason for this fragmentation is the way NGO activists frame the issue. For some artists who support Jokowi, the "Save KPK" movement is synonymous with the "anti-Jokowi" movement.

The alliance of volunteer groups during the presidential election was too broad and too loose. Unity between the activists, NGO workers, artists and the rest of the public happens only when there is a shared goal as well as a rallying point to unite them. Making Jokowi the winner of last year's election was the shared goal. On the KPK-National Police issue, not all the president's supporters agree that a sense of crisis looms over Indonesia's anti-corruption agenda.

Second, not many citizens can monitor and pay detailed attention to the political problems Jokowi faces every day. They are the amateurs in political terms. They know the issues only on the surface. They are also preoccupied with their own lives. Only the activists working professionally on corruption issues have the time and resources to monitor the development of the KPK-National Police rift closely.

Third, some of Jokowi's supporters believe he should be given a break, considering that Budi's controversial appointment was linked to the web of power of the Indonesian oligarchs that surround Jokowi. This group believes the public should be patient in dealing with the legacy of decades of corruption.

While the KPK-National Police saga will not make Jokowi lose too much of his support, what is at stake — due to his weakness — is a return to public apathy and ignorance. The 2014 presidential election was regarded as a moment to put politics back into the hands of ordinary citizens. They believed they had the power for change. Now they may think that all of this is business as usual.

Amalinda Savirani is a lecturer at the Department of Politics and Government at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta.

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