October 19, 2014 1:00 pm JST

For Indonesia's new president, it's time to get dirty

ELIZABETH PISANI

Having won the most bitterly contested election in Indonesia's history, Joko Widodo will be inaugurated on Monday as Indonesia's seventh president. The challenges he faces are immense: an economy that is dehydrating as the river of cheap money from the U.S. dries up and commodity prices fall; a national infrastructure that is largely nonexistent; the likely onslaught of competition from a regional free trade area that comes into effect at the end of next year.

     These looming headaches will be compounded by a hostile legislature unless Widodo steps up his efforts at the sort of inter-party deal-making that is the stuff of Indonesian politics.

     When the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) chose media darling Widodo as its likely presidential candidate just before legislative elections in April, he looked unbeatable. But the PDI-P did worse than expected in those elections. It failed to win the 25% of votes it needed to field its own presidential candidate, and was obliged to cobble together a minority coalition of partners who would not undermine Widodo's "Mr. Clean" image.

     Widodo's ambitious opponent Prabowo Subianto, head of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), was better financed, better organized, and rather less picky. He persuaded five parties, between them representing a comfortable majority of seats in parliament, to back his bid for the presidency.

     Subianto, a former general and son-in-law to long-serving military president Suharto, made liberal use of nationalist rhetoric, smear tactics and nostalgia in his campaign. He chomped through Widodo's 20-point lead in the polls so quickly that the PDI-P team switched to the narrative of the underdog when pushing the outwardly unassuming Widodo.

     There was some truth in that. Widodo comes from outside the political elite; he rose from a boyhood in the slums to become mayor of the small Central Java city of Solo largely on his own merits, and went on to become governor of Jakarta with only anemic support from two parties: the PDI-P and Subianto's own Gerindra party. Gerindra, now working to undermine Widodo at every turn, may have backed him for governor of Jakarta because party leaders thought it would keep the celebrated "man of the people" out of the presidential race.

     It did not. Running as the "outsider" candidate for one of Indonesia's most established political parties, the skinny small-town mayor eventually beat the portly former general by 5 percentage points. Despite his recent surprise declaration of support for the incoming president, Subianto immediately started to set up his rival for failure in the presidency.

     Step one: After the July election, parties backing Subianto pushed a law through parliament that gave them, rather than the majority PDI-P party, the power to dole out critical posts in the legislature.

     Step two: In late September, they passed a law that removes Indonesians' right to elect their district heads and provincial governors directly. This effectively concentrates power back in the hands of the political party elites in Jakarta and undermines chances that any "outsider" candidate such as Widodo could emerge again in the future.

 

   The farmers, schoolteachers, fishermen, civil servants, food vendors and bus drivers I have spoken to in both rural eastern Indonesia and in the capital in recent weeks are universally furious about this. They know their interests are represented by their locally elected district heads, not by their national members of parliament. Indeed one reason that MPs in Jakarta can even contemplate enacting a law that opinion polls suggest is opposed by over 80% of voters is that they have virtually no connection with the people they are supposed to represent.

     So why have most Indonesians not hit the streets in protest? Why has opposition to what you could call Subianto's "Operation Roll Back Democracy" been confined to making amusing YouTube videos and genteel Sunday morning demos in big cities?

     It is probably because most voters are expecting a uniquely Indonesian solution to a rather un-Indonesian problem: compromise.

An "Indonesian" solution

Citizens of many countries, including the U.S., have grown accustomed to seeing the reformist zeal of a popularly elected head of government undermined by a legislature that represents vested interests better than it represents voters. But in Indonesia, open opposition to the president is a phenomenon that has not been seen since Indonesia's first president -- Sukarno -- shut down parliamentary democracy in 1957.

     Indonesian politics tends to proceed through compromise rather than confrontation. It now seems highly likely that the various branches of government will trade their way to a solution to the direct elections crisis. The outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has signed a "government regulation in lieu of law," which overrides the new law and restores direct elections for district and provincial heads, albeit with some additional conditions. The regulation must now be discussed again by parliament.

     The composition of parliament has changed since the passage of the law abrogating direct elections. The Subianto-led coalition controls 52% of seats to Widodo's 37%. The remaining 11% of seats are occupied by members of Yudhoyono's Democrat Party, whose allegiance is unclear but who will support Widodo at least on this vote.

     Subianto's millionaire brother Hashim Djojohadikusumo, a senior figure in the Gerindra Party, recently indicated that his party, too, may be ready to compromise on the crucial issue of direct elections. But by flexing its muscles so forcefully and so early, Gerindra has made it absolutely clear: Widodo will not be able to stick to lofty "no compromise" principles and effectively govern Indonesia for the next five years.

     In his presidential campaign, Widodo swore he would not govern by trading cabinet posts for political support. But as he railed against transactional politics, he was surely aware he was vying for the top job in one of the most transactional political systems on earth. Indonesia's 250 million people are clustered in 360 ethnic groups across 7,000 inhabited islands; they are represented by a dozen political parties, some secular and some tinged with Islam.

     As long as the country remains a democracy, its leaders must necessarily manage this extraordinary diversity. That means cobbling together unlikely but functional alliances and co-opting opponents. Historically, that has involved pulling potential supporters and spoilers alike into government by offering cabinet posts to senior party members.

     It seems likely that Widodo's personal scruples have not, in fact, been the most solid obstacle to this sort of distasteful-but-necessary political horse-trading.

     Rather, it is his boss Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of founding president Sukarno, who has stood in the way of compromise with other parties. The PDI-P chair's lofty refusal to treat other politicians as equals allowed her to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory during the 1999 elections, when the presidency was in the gift of the legislature. In recent weeks she has been particularly sulky in her dealings with outgoing President Yudhoyono. This is unfortunate, since Yudhoyono's Democrat Party is among the most likely to abandon its loose ties with Subianto and join the PDI-P led coalition.

     As his inauguration as president on Oct. 20 approached, Widodo became more willing to woo friend and foe. He has held meetings with the head of Golkar, the largest party in the opposition coalition, and on Oct. 17 he trekked to Subianto's house, drawing from his opponent a public declaration of constructive opposition.

     Widodo appears to be throwing off the constraints of the old guard within his own party and showing his colors as a leader. With his inauguration will come the opportunity to knuckle down to the business of politics and compromise, Indonesian style. If he forges strong alliances in his first months as president, he may just have a chance of delivering on the difficult reforms that Indonesia needs and that many voters expect.

Elizabeth Pisani is author of "Indonesia Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation."

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