Joko Widodo: Has the shine worn off Indonesia’s Obama?
When Joko Widodo became Indonesia’s president five years ago, he drew comparisons with Barack Obama.
Like the former president of the United States, Joko — known as Jokowi — was a unlikely political outsider who promised change.
A child of the slums, the charismatic Jokowi promised to increase jobs, bolster human rights and crack down on corruption. The public was sold and swept in the self-styled man-of-the-people over his military strongman opponent, Prabowo Subianto, now 67.
As the world’s third biggest democracy heads to the polls Wednesday, Jokowi is once again facing off against his old opponent.
This time, though, it’s a completely different battle.
Although polls suggest Jokowi, 57, is likely to win a second term, he’s copped criticism from analysts and former supporters who say he has failed to deliver on issues such as human rights — and compromised his values of pluralism to score political points.
Jokowi’s choice of a hardline Muslim cleric running mate, for example, might turn off people who voted for him in 2014 for his commitment to religious freedom.
“Jokowi’s credentials as a reformer don’t look as good because he’s made so many compromises with the mainstream,” said Ben Bland, director of Southeast Asia project at think tank Lowy Institute. “(In 2019), he’s a very different kind of figure.”
Wave of hope
In 2014, there was a sense that Indonesian democracy itself was at stake.
For 32 years, Indonesia was ruled by President Suharto, an authoritarian dictator who used the military to keep the country in check. After he was driven from office in 1998 by rioting and political chaos, Indonesia brought in new reforms, including limiting presidential terms to five years and allowing freedom of the press.
Prabowo, who had been Suharto’s son-in-law, indicated he would roll back democratic reform and reinstate the supremacy of the president.
“The euphoria was comparable with Obama’s first term,” says Ella Prihatini, an academic with the Center for Muslim States and Societies at the University of Western Australia.
During his first term, the furniture entrepreneur turned politician has had some success.
Jokowi extended access to education and health for the poor, rolled out social programs early on in his term and has created 10 million new jobs during the past four years. He’s also made huge strides in infrastructure, building 950 kilometers of toll roads, 3,400 kilometers of highways, 40 kilometers of bridges, 10 new airports, 19 ports and 17 dams.
Earlier this year, the country opened its first subway line in Jakarta. And importantly, his approval rating remains over 50%.
But he has also failed to meet expectations in a number of areas.
The country has maintained an average 5% GDP growth rate — less than Jokowi’s 7% target, and level with what has been achieved since 2000. Prabowo has seized on his rival’s economic failings, slamming Jokowi for allowing food prices to rise and calling for better quality jobs.
And Jokowi hasn’t had much success cracking down on corruption, upholding human rights, or protecting minorities, says Vedi Hadiz, director and professor of Asian Studies at Melbourne University.
Jokowi began his presidency by signing off on executions by firing squad of eight drug offenders, despite international outcry. Despite saying he would address past human rights injustices during his 2014 campaign, he’s yet to do so. And according to Human Rights Watch, police have conducted arbitrary and unlawful raids on private LGBT gatherings, while people continue to be imprisoned for blasphemy. Police have previously denied targeting the LGBT community and, in the lead up to this year’s election, Jokowi denied overseeing any rights violations.
“There’s a lot of concerns that in some respects, democracy has gone backwards under Jokowi’s watch — either because of him or maybe despite him,” said Bland.
A man of compromises
Jokowi has been dogged by criticism that he isn’t Muslim enough to lead Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim population where almost 90% of the population follow Islam and just under 10% are Christian or Catholic, according to the country’s statistics department.
In an apparent bid to neutralize those concerns, Jokowi has selected 76-year-old Muslim cleric Ma’ruf Amin as his vice-presidential running mate.
Ma’ruf chairs an Islamic council with a long history of intolerant views, including calling for the criminalization of homosexual sex. When Jokowi announced his running mate last year, he said: “I think we complete each other, nationalistic and religious.”
Despite the president consistently promoting pluralism in public, there has been a rising influence of Islamist elements in Indonesia during his terms.
After Jokowi assumed the presidency a Christian also known as Ahok, or Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, took over the his post in the Jakarta governorship. In 2017, Ahok was sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy after telling voters they should not be duped by religious leaders using a passage from the Quran to say that non-Muslims couldn’t lead Muslims.
His comments angered hardline Muslim groups, who turned out in force to rally against him. Jokowi called for calm, urging Indonesians to trust in the legal system, but some felt the court had succumbed to political pressure.
But while Jokowi’s running mate Ma’ruf might burnish his Muslim credentials, it could also impact the level of support Jokowi receives from more liberal voters.
Amahl Sharif Azwar, a gay Indonesian freelance writer who lives in Thailand, voted for Jokowi in 2014, but has decided to abstain from this presidential election.
“The moment he chose Ma’ruf Amin, I decided that enough is enough,” Azwar says. “I think it’s unfair to expect LGBT Indonesians to vote when we’re not even considered a part of this nation.”
Those keen for change are now looking ahead to the 2024 election, when there could be a host of new faces.
It’s a story that’s been told before in politics.
Like Jokowi, Obama also faced criticism during his second election bid, especially from former supporters who had expected more change during his first term.
“Most leaders who rise to power on a wave of hope end up disappointing their supporters when confronted with the realities of government,” said Bland. “It was inevitable that the shine would come off Jokowi.”