JAKARTA (The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network): When President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo (pic) took office on Oct 20, 2014, doubts lingered over whether an upstart like him could secure the support of the political elite.
Seven years in, the former Jakarta governor continues to prove his doubters wrong as he tightens his grip on power. As the clock ticks down to the end of his presidency in 2024, and even after the first year of his second term was hit by the world’s worst health crisis in more than a century, Jokowi still maintains strong political capital.
This will allow him to secure his legacy, even as it sparks calls and concerns for a possible third term.
Jokowi may have dashed the hopes of progressives and reformists who thought he would challenge long-established oligarchic interests, but he has still found a way to navigate the country's elitist politics to ensure his survival and to execute his policies.
Still going strong Jokowi's approval rating fell from 71.4 per cent in April 2019 to 68.8 per cent in October 2020, a period that included the first eight months since Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic.
His rating remains stable this year at 68.5 per cent in Sept 2021, with the public largely approving his handling of the pandemic, according to the latest polls released on Tuesday (Oct 19) from Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting (SMRC).
“The leader of any country would envy such high numbers,” said Philip J. Vermonte, executive director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Jakarta.
“Despite the critical public, [his] approval rating remains high. This is strong social capital for Jokowi to [build] a legacy in his second term.”
With the pandemic now under control relative to the devastating second wave driven by the Delta variant in June-July, 64.6 per cent of respondents expressed satisfaction with the Jokowi administration’s Covid-19 response.
The SMRC survey was conducted between Sept 15 and 21, involved 1,220 respondents across the country and has a 3.19 per cent margin of error. Jokowi’s ever-growing coalition Jokowi’s minority government coalition made for a fraught first year in 2014, with very little legislation passed by his administration and a low approval rating for the President.
But that tough first year might seem like a distant memory today. Analysts have noted that the general trend in Indonesia’s patronage-based political system is opposition parties attempting to cross over and receive key Cabinet appointments with which to “reward” their supporters.
As Jokowi began learning the ropes, he was able to exploit the power struggle among the opposition to get more parties to join the ranks. Since his reelection in 2019 with a bigger margin, Jokowi has managed to bring his fiercest opponent into the fold, with erstwhile election rival and Gerindra chair Prabowo Subianto now serving on his Cabinet as defence minister.
In late August this year, Jokowi expanded his coalition by pulling in another political party, the National Mandate Party (PAN), to claim a whopping 82 per cent majority of the 575 seats at the House of Representatives. The grand coalition leaves the Democratic Party and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) as the only remaining opposition parties.
"I think one of the reasons why the President is still adding parties to his coalition, even in his second term, is to secure backup support in case of a defection from his coalition,” said executive director Djayadi Hanan of the Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI).
Meanwhile, PAN’s entry also underscores Jokowi’s oft-underestimated ability to keep his big-tent coalition intact while consolidating more power.
“A lot of people viewed him as a weak President at the beginning. But over the years, Jokowi has shown to be more strategic and astute at bargaining with political parties,” said Arya Fernandes, a political analyst at CSIS.
Nevertheless, some analysts say there is still a risk that Jokowi’s leadership could become less effective in the remaining three years of his second and final term.
“We can expect Jokowi to move at a much slower pace when some parties currently in his coalition begin [to disengage] after 2022 as they prepare for their own presidential bids in 2024,” said the LSI’s Djayadi.
Separately, political scientist Yohanes Sulaiman at Gen. Achmad Yani University downplayed suggestions that Jokowi risked becoming a “lame duck president” like his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Yudhoyono’s second term was beset by legal and political controversies that rendered his presidency ineffective, such as the Bank Century bailout scandal and the arrests of several executives in his Democratic Party on corruption charges.
Infighting was visible in Yudhoyono’s ruling coalition, with several pro-government factions openly undermining his interests at the legislature “Yudhoyono’s lack of decisiveness and resoluteness is what made his political capital go to waste and made him a ‘lame duck’. Jokowi, on the other hand, has stood his ground even when criticisms came his way,” said Yohanes.
Analysts have noted that the combination of the Covid-19 crisis and being a final-term president appears to have sharpened Jokowi’s focus, leading him to discard many aspects of his broader agenda for social and political reform and instead concentrating single-mindedly on policy areas most important to him: the economy and development.
As he nears the end of his presidency, Jokowi looks to be staking his legacy on relocating the capital city to East Kalimantan as the apex of his infrastructure ambitions for Indonesia.
However, Firman Noor, head of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) Political Research Center, noted that Jokowi’s lack of commitment to upholding or strengthening political and civil rights had led to the deterioration of Indonesian democracy.
“We are seeing a climate of fear that is more pronounced compared to the [Yudhoyono] era. Back then, people could still hold protests over BBM [fuel oil] subsidies without much fear. Now, civil society has grown more cautious in expressing their disapproval,” said Firman.
The President’s final term has also been marked by a steady erosion of the authority and independence of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), an internationally recognised anticorruption body and one of the few legacies of the Reform movement that put a stopper on predatory politics and rampant corruption in Indonesia, however transitory.
Jokowi’s reformist credentials have also been dented by accusations of dynasticism over his support for the mayoral candidacies of his son and son-in-law in two major cities.
Djayadi noted, however, that Jokowi’s meteoric rise to power was unique in that he lacked any ties to the political elite or to the Indonesian Military, which was key to his popularity.
“People were projecting what they wanted onto him and they were disappointed. He’s just an ordinary politician,” he said.