Interviews | Politics | Southeast Asia

Interview: Indonesian Politics During Jokowi’s Second Term

A conversation with Alex Arifianto analyzing what to expect in Indonesia during President Jokowi’s second term.

Prashanth Parameswaran
Interview: Indonesian Politics During Jokowi’s Second Term
Credit: Flickr/Eduardo M.C.

With Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo having been inaugurated as the country’s new president last October, we have seen an increasing focus on some of the key developments in his second term as well as what they may mean for the country. This comes amid wider trends with respect to the country’s politics, including continued anxieties about the state of Indonesian democracy and some of Jokowi’s priorities.

To get at these issues, The Diplomat’s senior editor Prashanth Parameswaran spoke to Alex Arifianto, a research fellow with the Indonesia Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. An edited version of that conversation follows.

In his inauguration speech October, Jokowi stressed that the focus during his second term would be on results rather than process. But he was also careful not to set out specific metrics or performance indicators tied to particular periods during his time in office beyond general objectives such as moving the country’s capital. How should we assess progress on his second term more generally in the coming years? 

Jokowi’s main priority remains infrastructure development — the construction of new toll roads, railways, airports, power plants, etc. Arguably the relocation of Indonesia’s capital from Jakarta to Penajam Paser, East Kalimantan, is also a major infrastructure project in Jokowi’s second term and the administration has scheduled its completion in 2024 — just before he steps down from the Indonesian presidency.

Jokowi’s other priority is investment in human capital and education, so during his second term we shall expect more public investment in education and skill-upgrading, especially for the under-35-years-old population, which comprises approximately one-quarter of Indonesia’s population. Jokowi’s appointment of internet tycoon Nabiel Makarim as the country’s new education minister is just the first step of his initiative in the education sector – with a goal to transform Indonesia’s labor force to be equipped with IT and related skill-sets to enable Indonesia to take advantage of the Industrial Revolution 4.0 and leapfrog it to become an advanced industrial economy by 2045.

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However, since Indonesia has long been besieged by problems related to the quality of its workforce – for example, a lower rate of attainment in basic reading and math skills compared to other large developing nations – transforming Indonesia’s workforce so it can become another China or India would be a tough challenge to meet for the administration. Attaining goals in building hard infrastructure like new toll roads is easier, but the challenge to attract new foreign direct investment (FDI) in critical infrastructure, utilities, information technology, and other sectors remains. Indonesia is still facing long-term challenges ranging from an uncertain legal environment, lack of secure land tenure, poor governance, and endemic corruption that make it unattractive for FDIs in comparison to other Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia, Thailand or Vietnam.

While he is not alone in this, Jokowi has shown a growing tendency to satisfy various constituencies and even coopt his opponents, as evidenced from his vice-presidential appointment and his decision to include his two-time rival for the presidency Prabowo Subianto in his cabinet. How should we view this in terms of Indonesian politics, and what might lie ahead for Jokowi in his second term in this regard? 

Every post-Suharto administration in Indonesia had formed “rainbow coalitions,” which incorporate almost all major political parties and senior politicians. This is done as a strategy to minimize any possible opposition within the parliament and major political parties. It is also done to ensure all major parties get the spoils from the state’s enormous budgets.

Jokowi’s coalition strategy, which includes Prabowo in his second term government, is just following this now-established custom. Inclusive of Prabowo’s Gerindra Party, parties aligning with Jokowi now control about 70 percent of the lower house (DPR). The only effective opposition now is offered by small Islamist parties like the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and National Mandate Party (PAN). Each controls less than 8 percent of the DPR seats. It means that much of Jokowi’s big-ticket agenda for his second term – for instance the omnibus legislation to reform Indonesia’s archaic tax and labor laws and another to authorize the relocation of Indonesia’s capital to East Kalimantan – would likely pass the DPR easily within the next few months.

Jokowi’s legislative accomplishments are more likely to be achieved within the next two years (2020-2022) as he still commands the support of most key parties and politicians until then. Afterwards, he is likely to become a “lame duck” president as under the current constitutional term, he is not able to seek re-election after his term expires in 2024. We can expect some parties and elite politicians who are currently in his coalition to begin disengaging, even peeling off from it after 2022, as they prepared for their own presidential candidacy in 2024.

One of the key areas of focus Jokowi has signaled is the economy, tied to the goal of Indonesia escaping the middle-income trap by 2045 and becoming an advanced economy as he stressed in his inauguration address. But he also noted the need to address systemic challenges, including trimming regulations and the bureaucracy, as well as some priorities such as the passage of omnibus laws. What will you be looking for in terms of how Jokowi manages the political economy of Indonesia in the coming years? 

Reforming Indonesia’s bureaucracy and regulatory reform – especially those focusing on land acquisition, labor regulations, and promoting a certain legal environment for prospective investors – is undoubtedly Jokowi’s largest challenge. The Indonesian civil service employs approximately 4.5 million people in Jakarta as well as in regional governments. It is very bloated, inefficient, hostile to any reform initiatives, and very graft ridden. Jokowi’s main challenge is: Can he reform and transform the bureaucracy so that is becomes innovative, fully professional, and is responsive to his vision to transform Indonesia to become a leading part of Industrial Revolution 4.0?

A successful civil service reform would strengthen Jokowi’s hand in promoting his other initiatives such as regulatory reform and passing the omnibus labor law. Jokowi would also need to reform numerous regulations — many of them issued by provincial and local governments  — that inhibit new foreign investments at the regional level. In doing so, he may need to amend the 2001 Regional Autonomy Law, which provided broad authority to local governments to issue regulations covering most public services from education, health care, and investment permits.

By implementing these as well as other reforms, Jokowi has to tackle many vested interests, including party leaders and politicians from within his own large “rainbow coalition” that have long benefited from the status quo in the economic sector and used the ministries they control to benefit themselves and their cronies.

Jokowi’s first term and the beginning of his second term have also seen heightening concerns with respect to Indonesia’s democracy, whether it be on more specific issues such as corruption or more general talk of democratic rollback or deconsolidation. How does the outlook look to you to date, and what benchmarks and areas should we be looking at in order to assess how this is progressing in Jokowi’s second term? 

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The accusation that the Jokowi regime is turning toward democratic rollback or deconsolidation came out in particular most recently in the preceding weeks prior to his second inauguration, as a massive university student protests erupted all over Indonesia against proposed new laws to weaken the Indonesian Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) and against punitive amendments to the country’s criminal code that would have harmed freedom of expression and individual privacy rights of Indonesian citizens. The government and DPR agreed to postpone the latter amendment but proceeded with the former. It also postponed an extraordinary joint session of parliament, which would have amended Indonesia’s constitution. Among the proposed amendments are those that would cancel direct presidential and regional executives’ elections (which has been institutionalized in Indonesia since 2004) and those that would extend the president’s term to allow a third five-year term.

Senior politicians have stated that parliament will consider these new amendments sometime later this year. The proposed criminal code law amendments and a new “family harmony,” bill which would have criminalized LGBT and virtually all types of pre-marital sex, have been placed on the DPR’s priority agenda slated for completion later this year as well. If the parliament proceeds to deliberate on the proposed amendments and these bills later this year, we can expect students to go back to the street in large numbers. However, it is uncertain whether their protests will stop the passage of these legislations as Jokowi coalition parties now controls nearly 70 percent of the legislative seats.

Lastly, Jokowi is increasingly appointing retired military (TNI) generals and police generals into key positions within his government. For instance, Fahlur Razi, the new minister of religious affairs, is a retired TNI general, while Luhut Pandjaitan, coordinating minister for maritime affairs, is another retired TNI general who is widely considered as one of Jokowi’s closest advisers. Meanwhile Tito Karnavian (minister of home affairs), Budi Gunawan (head of the National Intelligence Agency), and heads of key government agencies like the Immigration Office and the National Logistical Agency (Bulog) are retired police generals. The dominance of these retired officers within his administration are blamed for the “authoritarian” measures issued by the administration within the past year, for instance, the new law passed in August 2019 that severely restricts the activities of foreign scholars and researchers in Indonesia.

If Jokowi continues to bring in more retired TNI and police generals into his administration during his second term, and many retired generals are elected as provincial and local chief executives in the upcoming 2020 local elections, these are signs that the “militarization” of the Jokowi administration continues to proceed, which can be an impetus for further democratic deconsolidation of Indonesia.

One of the trends we have seen in Indonesian politics over the past few years has been the perceived rise in the role of more conservative Islamists in particular. How do you see the evolution of Islamism and political Islam during Jokowi’s second term? 

Conservative Islamists will remain as the main opposition force towards Jokowi during his second term. Islamists mainly consists of former “212” Defending Islam movement supporters against former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (“Ahok”) – an ally of the president. Two out of three parties remaining in the opposition camp – respectively Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and National Mandate Party (PAN) – are backed mainly by conservative Islamists.

It is premature to dismiss the Islamist challenge against Jokowi to be irrelevant during his second term just because Prabowo Subianto – the opposition presidential candidate they used to support – has both lost the presidential election and has now aligned himself with the president. Some former Defending Islam movement activists are now planning to contest the 2020 regional elections as candidates for governorships, regent heads, and mayors. If a significant number of them managed to win this year’s regional elections, they may continue on as a primary opposition force against Jokowi that might be attractive to be courted by prospective 2024 presidential candidates – like current Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan, who won election over Ahok thanks to the support of Defending Islam activists.

Jokowi has to walk a fine line in dealing with the Islamist challenge to ensure that his administration’s policy toward them does not limit their constitutional rights. Some of proposed actions proposed by his officials – such as the pre-screening of all Friday sermons, the screening of Quranic lessons for content that promotes “radicalism” and “extremism,” and mandatory registration of communal preaching groups (Majelis Taklim) – are perceived as heavy-handed measures commonly used by Middle Eastern governments to clamp down on the perceived threat from “hardline Islamists.” These measures might infringe on the constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and freedom of association enshrined in the Indonesian Constitution.