President Joko Widodo – popularly known as Jokowi – took office last October to extraordinarily high expectations. Jokowi was very different from the Indonesian presidents who came before him. He didn’t come into office with a military background, or from the country’s political aristocracy. He demonstrated his capacity for the presidency instead, by working doggedly as mayor and governor to solve local problems and respond to constituent concerns. He was a reformist who, on the campaign trail, promised to further empower the country’s powerful anti-corruption bureau, and who made clear his commitment to protecting Indonesians right to elections.
When Jokowi won office by narrowly beating a right-wing general with strong ties to the country’s recent dictatorship, it seemed that Indonesia’s young democracy was finally beginning to produce competent, non-corrupt leaders. Jokowi promised to enact a “Mental Revolution,” in which ordinary Indonesians would lose their tolerance for graft, and start demanding more from themselves and from their politicians. He immediately issued bold promises of reform, the boldest of which was that his cabinet would be filled entirely by technocrats, instead of the mediocre and often corrupt political appointees who usually run the country’s powerful ministries.
That promise in particular was always going to be a difficult one to keep: The political coalition that backed Jokowi would inevitably demand control of key cabinet posts. Jokowi – a relative political outsider running without a political party of his own – needed to shore up his coalition’s support. Understanding this, political observers generally reacted sympathetically when, in October, Jokowi announced his cabinet selections, which included many more political appointees than Jokowi had first suggested.
The reaction was very different a few months later, when Jokowi’s January nomination of Budi Gunawan for chief of National Police set off a political firestorm. Gunawan is a client of Megawati, who is the leader of the PDI-P, Jokowi’s political party. And Gunawan has a checkered past: He is a former police general who became mysteriously wealthy despite receiving relatively humble pay as a police commissioner throughout his career.
The KPK – the nation’s preeminent anti-corruption bureau that has successfully investigated dozens of high-level Indonesia officials for graft – immediately pounced, placing Gunawan under investigation. Instead of withdrawing the nomination of Gunawan and selecting a candidate not suspected of corruption, Jokowi insisted for weeks on staying the course, declaring that he would wait for the investigation to finish before nominating another chief of Police. The president held to this tack despite the huge public outcry – in demonstrations, newspaper editorials, and social media – against the appointment by citizens who thought the nominee for chief of National Police should be above suspicion.
Jokowi defied popular will because he was under intense pressure – private and public – from his coalition’s leadership to continue supporting Gunawan, even as he faced a strong public backlash for continuing with the nomination. According to Tobias Basuki a researcher on Indonesian politics at CSIS, a prominent Jakarta think tank, the KPK’s independence helped persuade the elites in Jokowi’s coalition to pressure the president not to abandon the idea of Gunawan – a reliable establishment client – as chief of National Police. “Because the KPK is outside of the control of the Cartel [informal cross-party network of establishment politicians] it’s very important to have a Chief of Police on their side.”
The situation got messier when the National Police retaliated against the KPK by reviving long-dead cases against KPK leaders, in what was viewed clearly by the public as an attempt to intimidate leaders of the anti-graft agency and prevent them from pursuing charges against police officials suspected of corruption. The National Police later broadened their attack to include the KPK rank-and-file, accusing 21 members of the KPK of owning illegal firearms. Jokowi, instead of defending the KPK from trumped-up charges, released waffling, vague statements like this one: “As head of state I also asked the national police and KPK not to let friction occur when performing their duties.” But the friction was occurring nonetheless and the hashtags #WhereAreYouJokowi and #SavetheKPK spent days dominating Twitter, all without the president coming to the defense of his anti-corruption organization, whose chief commissioner and deputy chief commissioner were ultimately suspended while they focused on their legal defenses. According to Basuki, this refusal to publicly support the embattled KPK, “is consistent with the political predicament Jokowi is in. If he strongly supports the KPK that’s actually an outright defiance of [party chairwoman] Megawati.”
Thus a situation that began with one bad appointment has concluded with the destabilization of the country’s vaunted anti-corruption organization. According to Sandra Hamid, The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Indonesia, “His [Jokowi’s] decisions have not been seen as helpful in supporting KPK. So it’s not that I’m worried the KPK will be weakened under Jokowi’s watch; the KPK has already been weakened under Jokowi’s watch.”
The drama only began to unwind in the middle of February, when Jokowi finally withdrew the nomination of Budi Gunawan and nominated a new candidate instead, albeit one whose bank account has also raised suspicions. Jokowi’s credibility as a reformer is greatly damaged, and even some of his earliest supporters – like the editors of The Jakarta Post – are running hard-hitting articles that highlight Jokowi’s lack of boldness. Hamid told me about a friend of hers who left her job as a consultant to volunteer for Jokowi’s campaign. Now her friend was losing hope and told Hamid, “I quit work for four months to volunteer for Jokowi, and now I question, ‘Does he have what it takes to be president?’”
Perhaps most surprising, given the sordidness of these scandals, is that commentators maintain some level of optimism about Jokowi. “He can salvage things. It’s not too late by any means,” said Kevin O’Rourke, a political analyst and author of Reformasi, a newsletter. One reason is that, throughout this drama, the leaders of Indonesia’s political parties have demonstrated such an extraordinarily high level of nepotism that Jokowi’s lack of forcefulness appears only a minor crime by comparison. As a recent editorial in the Jakarta Globe put it, “The weakening of the KPK is a result of various factors, including Joko’s indecisiveness, but in stark contrast, all of the agency’s enemies, especially politicians in the House of Representatives, have been united.” At least with Jokowi, Basuki told me, “I’m still optimistic that his heart is in the right place.”
There is a strong desire for Jokowi to cut his ties with his party’s elite and act as decisively as he did as mayor. “He’s being inept at the moment. But one thing that’s been clear throughout his career is he’s a fast learner and he’s able to recognize his mistakes and change his approach,” said O’Rourke, citing changes to his party platform he made when running for governor of Jakarta. And according to O’Rourke, it isn’t too late to reclaim the public’s support. “He would be able to revive and restore public support – he’d have to use the press more and be frank about the political problems he’s facing. If he were to do that it would help – a cabinet reshuffle is a first step, promote institutional changes, a press strategy that involves real candid discussions with the public – that’s the way to outmaneuver the vested interests.”
Many questions remain, including whether Jokowi can maintain the public trust while he learns to wield power effectively in Jakarta. But despite the obstacles, some political watchers have a hard time imagining Jokowi being down for too long. “At this point,” Basuki said, “I’m still optimistic about Jokowi.”
Jon Emont is based in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. His previous writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Slate, and many other publications.