Interviews | Politics | Southeast Asia

Ben Bland on the Contradictions of Indonesia’s President Jokowi

Ben Bland on the Contradictions of Indonesia’s President Jokowi
Credit: Flickr/Number 10

In 2014, Joko Widodo was elected president of Indonesia following a campaign that had echoes of U.S. President Barack Obama’s run for the White House six years earlier. But since taking office, Jokowi (as he is widely known) has fallen short of the promises and expectations that accompanied his rapid rise to power.

As the Financial Times correspondent in Jakarta from 2012 to 2016, Ben Bland covered Jokowi’s campaign for governor of Jakarta, and his subsequent scaling of the heights of national politics. He has now channeled this first-hand experience into a new book, “Man of Contradictions: Joko Widodo and the Struggle to Remake Indonesia,” the first study of President Jokowi to appear in English.

Bland, now the director of the Southeast Asia Program at Sydney’s Lowy Institute, speaks with The Diplomat’s Southeast Asia Editor Sebastian Strangio about the contradictions of Indonesia’s seventh president – and those of the complex, sprawling archipelago over which he governs.

What sparked your interest in writing a book about Jokowi?

When I first watched Jokowi on the campaign trail during the Jakarta gubernatorial campaign in 2012, I could see that he had a rare, instinctive talent for retail politics. He was able to electrify Indonesian politics without ever saying much. I’ve met so many politicians in Indonesia, and the rest of the world, who are desperate to climb the greasy pole but don’t have that touch – and all the consultants in the world can’t buy it or fake it.

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In the first chapter of Man of Contradictions, you describe the astonishing rapidity of Jokowi’s rise, from the furniture business in a second-tier Javanese city to the presidency of Southeast Asia’s most populous nation. In fact, you liken it to someone going in just nine years “from second-hand car dealer in Pittsburgh to president of the United States.” How do you account for Jokowi’s meteoric rise? What does it say about Indonesian politics circa 2014?

I argue in the book that Jokowi made it to the top “accidentally, on purpose.” Successful politicians, like comedians, need good timing. And Jokowi was incredibly fortunate to enter electoral politics at a time when Indonesian voters were yearning for more responsive leaders and were growing tired of the staid caste of elite politicians. In that sense, he was sucked up into a vacuum at the top of Indonesian politics.

Jokowi clearly sensed this opening and had the ambition, drive and political skill to take advantage of it. Along the way he had to convince voters in the world’s third-biggest democracy that he was the right man, and he had to overcome some substantial opponents. Former president Megawati Sukarnoputri and former special forces general Prabowo Subianto backed Jokowi’s 2012 run for Jakarta governor in the hope that his electoral magic would boost their presidential chances in 2014. But Jokowi snatched the presidency from under both their noses, a move that required no small amount of chutzpah.

The scholar Marcus Mietzner has described Jokowi as a “polite populist” who was successfully able to position himself as an “outsider” in elite Indonesian politics. To what extent has this “outsider” label been borne out by Jokowi’s record in office?

Jokowi pitched himself to voters as a new broom who would sweep away the cobwebs of corruption and bureaucracy. He certainly was an outsider in terms of his backstory. But as a mayor of Solo, and then governor of Jakarta, he was always someone who worked with existing power structures and elites rather than seeking to overturn them. Once ensconced in the presidential palace, these elite links have inevitably deepened.

Now, Jokowi has three quarters of the Indonesian parliament in his loose governing coalition and most of the nation’s media tycoons behind him, so it’s hard to call him an outsider anymore. He also surprised many of his early backers in civil society by facilitating the entry into politics of his son, who is running for his old seat as mayor of Solo, and his son-in-law, who is running for mayor of Medan, Sumatra’s commercial capital. In many ways, it’s not surprising given that the descendants of five of Indonesia’s other six presidents are active in politics today. Does power corrupt, as Lord Acton famously suggested? I think this is more a case of power revealing what a leader is really like, as the great U.S. biographer Robert Caro put it.

You write in detail about Western observers’ high expectations of Jokowi at the time of his election in 2014, comparing it to his disappointing record of governance. Outsiders often have a habit of projecting their ideological hopes and assumptions onto the leaders of foreign nations take the situation with Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar, for example. In Indonesia, how much of this was a case of Jokowi overpromising, and how much was external projection?

It’s a bit of both. Jokowi did promise a lot in his 2014 election manifesto and in various speeches to global business forums and interviews with the international press (myself included). But he gave very different messages to domestic audiences. Jokowi is quite skilled at allowing people to see what they want in him.

At the same time, many outsiders tend to project their own hopes and fears onto leaders of emerging nations, rather than trying to understand the complex challenges that these leaders face. The comparison with Aung San Suu Kyi is interesting. Did she really change from a shining light of democracy to an incompetent defender of genocide? Or did many outsiders never understand her in the first place?

Politics is a messy business anywhere but it’s particularly difficult in Indonesia, a vast archipelago that has been through many ups-and-downs in its short 75-year history as an independent nation. Yet analysts and journalists are always looking for simple labels. Jokowi has been called a reformer, a liberal, a new hope for democracy, a moderate, a pragmatist, a technocrat, a populist, a nationalist, a developmentalist and, recently, an authoritarian. None of them quite hits the spot on their own but there is a bit of truth in most of them, which is why I called my book “Man of Contradictions.”

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You emphasize the extent to which Jokowi is a unique figure in Indonesian presidential history the first to hail neither from the military, nor an established political family. How would you characterize his governing style, and do you discern any echoes of Indonesia’s past leaders?

Jokowi is an instinctive politician who relies on deeds rather than words. His governing style has been shaped by his experience as a furniture manufacturer and a city mayor. He prefers seeing things with his own eyes to listening to detailed explanations from experts. But that style of leadership is much harder when you’re president of a nation of 270 million people than when you’re running a city.

The president rules through personalities, not processes. He likes to keep his ministers on their toes and their influence tends to wax and wane as he plays them off against each other and seeks balance in his diverse and fractious political coalition. They call it the presidential palace for a reason. It is like a kingly court.

If you were to rely on the Indonesian government organization chart, you wouldn’t have a very good read on where true power lies. Ma’ruf Amin, Jokowi’s second term vice president, has been all but invisible. The most powerful officials (for now anyway) are Luhut Pandjaitan, an ex-general and Jokowi’s former business partner, and Erick Thohir, a tycoon who used to own the Inter Milan football club. But you wouldn’t know it from their respective job titles: coordinating minister for maritime affairs and the minister for state-owned enterprises.

While Jokowi represents the party of Indonesia’s founder Sukarno, PDI-P, he seems to have more in common with Suharto. Sukarno was a florid rhetorician who relished his role as a global statesman and reveled in disorder at home, believing that only he could unite the disparate peoples and forces that made up the world’s biggest archipelagic nation. Suharto, like Jokowi, was a man of few words from humble origins in Central Java. Both men were often under-estimated as they rose to the top without showing much overt ambition. Both relied on their intuition, experience and a sense of destiny to guide them. And both shared a keen focus on economic development. In many ways, it’s not a surprising comparison given that Jokowi’s formative years as a student and an emerging businessman were during Suharto’s rule.

In many ways, the fact that Jokowi could win election to Indonesia’s highest office encapsulates the successes of the country’s democracy since the fall of Suharto in 1998. But do you think this has been borne out by Jokowi’s time in office? How do you think the Indonesian president views democracy and democratic norms?

There’s another contradiction here. Jokowi has benefited from post-Suharto democratization more than any other Indonesian. He capitalized on Indonesia’s remarkably well-run, free and fair elections to go from provincial factory owner to president in just nine years. But he has been a poor guardian of democratic governance. Indonesia’s democratic institutions and norms have weakened on his watch, from the curbing of the the powers of the anti-corruption agency to the targeting of government critics and minority groups.

But I don’t think Jokowi is deliberately trying to undermine democracy. It’s more that he is focused on the economy, and he sees democracy as a tool to improve people’s lives rather than an end in itself. Some survey data suggest that many Indonesians share this instrumental view of democracy, which helps explain why Jokowi remains so popular.

It’s important to highlight that while democracy is under pressure, Indonesia remains the most democratic nation in Southeast Asia in many respects.

As you note, Jokowi has generally shown little interest in world affairs, at a time when Indonesia is grappling with one of its most serious foreign policy challenges in decades: the rise of a resurgent and increasingly assertive China. How would you characterize Jokowi’s stance toward China? Does this have any precedents in Indonesian foreign policy thinking?

Jokowi’s foreign policy is essentially mercantilist. He sees foreign policy in a similar way to democracy: as a tool to boost the economy. He’s looking for the partners who will offer Indonesia the most benefits with the fewest conditions. His approach to China is no different. The president understands that China is an important source of current and future trade and investment for Indonesia, as well as a possible provider of a COVID-19 vaccine, which Beijing is currently putting through clinical trials in Indonesia. So he wants to avoid problems with China and steer clear of great power politics whenever he can. Of course, he must balance this desire for commercial engagement with Beijing against the pressure China puts on Indonesian sovereignty in the Natuna Sea, and against deep-seated hostility to the ethnic Chinese community in Indonesia.

While Jokowi’s foreign policy is guided by his own economic lodestar, he is still navigating within the boundaries of Indonesia’s long-held “independent and active” stance in international relations. Indonesia is committed to retaining its strategic autonomy by not aligning with or signing alliances with any foreign powers. This helps Indonesia avoid external problems and also helps keep a lid on domestic tensions, which have flared in the past because of foreign entanglements. Some Indonesian foreign policy makers worry that this approach is too cautious for our dynamic world, and Jakarta risks being left on the sidelines as Asia’s power map is re-drawn. Others think this is precisely the sort of situation in which Indonesia needs to avoid taking unnecessary risks.