Among his supporters, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo raised expectations so high, before he was actually elected, that he was bound to disappoint them. Somewhat like U.S. President Barack Obama, Jokowi seemed to fulfill different images of hope for different supporters, even if Jokowi himself did not try to actually cultivate all of these images.
So, it was inevitable that some aspects of Jokowi’s early months as president would be a letdown. The new president ran on the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) ticket, so to some extent he had to reward key members of the party after his election. Thus, there was the appointment of Puan Maharani, the daughter of PDI-P leader and former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, to a senior government post, as well as the attempt to appoint Budi Gunawan as police chief despite allegations of corruption against him—he too is close to Megawati and other PDI-P leaders. Budi Gunawan and Megawati’s daughter are but two of the PDI-P–backed officials Jokowi has tried to put into high positions despite their lack of qualifications. One could also list among those unqualified for their posts Jokowi’s defense minister, Ryamizard Ryacudu, who has been linked to past human rights abuses in outlying provinces like Aceh and Papua, and Rini Soewandi, the state-owned enterprises minister.
Jokowi cannot divorce himself from the reality of Indonesian politics. Still, after his election he could have drawn on his sources of legitimacy—his popularity with ordinary Indonesians, his own personal ground network of supporters, his massive following on social media, his support among many liberal opinion leaders—to keep to a minimum the number of Megawati allies he had to stick into cabinet positions. In addition, he could have used the legitimacy provided by his election, which showed that the PDI-P needed him more than he needed the party, to at least place Megawati loyalists in less important cabinet positions. As it is, the appointment of so many Megawati loyalists, with such dubious backgrounds, badly undermines Jokowi’s pledge to build a cleaner and less politicized national government. Since corruption remains probably the biggest obstacle to higher growth, and since fighting corruption rests on signals from the top of the government, Jokowi’s decisions could seriously impede the anti-corruption battle in Indonesia. The fact that the new president will try to strengthen the corruption eradication commission, that Jokowi himself is known to be personally clean, and that the president also has appointed capable and clean ministers to other posts, may not be enough to outweigh the signal sent by bad appointments.
In addition, Jokowi’s economic policy remains muddled in some key areas. Cutting fuel subsidies is critical to fostering growth, as is Jokowi’s plan to improve Indonesia’s physical infrastructure, which badly lags that of competing nations in the region. But Jokowi needs someone to pay for all his planned infrastructural improvements, since Jakarta certainly does not have the money to do so. Yet Jokowi’s administration has demonstrated a mixed, and somewhat discouraging, approach to foreign investment. On the one hand, Jokowi has met with a range of foreign investors and used multiple speeches at high-profile venues to promise to implement the kinds of reforms investors long have craved in the country. He also has enlisted the strong backing of the Asian Development Bank for his plans to upgrade the country’s infrastructure and for his other economic development projects.
On the other hand, Jokowi’s signals on corruption are not exactly welcome news for foreign investors. And while the president’s policy of blowing up trawlers fishing illegally in Indonesian waters is popular at home, it is an over-the-top means of enforcing Indonesia’s territorial rights, one that threatens to further alienate investors from countries like China, whose boats are in danger of being destroyed. In addition, the president has issued mixed signals on resources investment in Indonesia. Like the previous government, Jokowi’s government reasonably wants to keep more value from its minerals in the country, and has pressured foreign investors to build processing facilities in Indonesia or else be forced to abandon their investments. But there remains the real threat that Jakarta will make deals with the big resources investors, receive pledges that foreign companies will build processing plants, and then tear up the deals before their terms are up. In a country where investment in resources is highly unpopular, particularly among many of Jokowi’s core supporters, the president has not shown that he, too, could fall into this trap of failing to honor contracts.