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Populist missteps deepen Indonesia's coronavirus crisis

Southeast Asia's most democratic nation has its highest number of COVID-19 cases

BANGKOK -- Indonesian President Joko Widodo is known for his gentle personality. But in a video released on June 28 on the Presidential Secretariat's official YouTube channel, he was furious.

At a cabinet meeting on June 18, the president, commonly known as Jokowi, lashed out at ministers over their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The president even threatened a reshuffle when he mentioned that the handout of the government's emergency economic package worth 695 trillion rupiah ($48 billion) has been delayed.

"The atmosphere over the last three months and in the next three months should be one of crisis... I see there are still many of us who [are acting] as usual," the president said. "I'm annoyed."

Widodo's exasperation is warranted given that Indonesia has recorded more than 66,000 cumulative coronavirus cases and over 3,300 deaths, the highest in Southeast Asia. The country is adding more than 1,000 new cases each day.

Indonesia has been lagging far behind neighboring countries, which have nearly contained the spread of the virus and moved to reopen their economies. To catch up, Indonesia rushed to resume economic activities in June, which only worsened the situation.

But it is highly unlikely that the frustrated Widodo was trying to tighten the grip on the ministers. The video was posted by the Presidential Secretariat 10 days after the cabinet meeting was held. So, it is natural to assume that the unusual public revelation of the administration's failure was made for a reason.

A hint can be inferred from the results a recent opinion survey.

According to pollster Indikator Politik Indonesia in mid-May, 56.4% of respondents said that they are satisfied with the government's coronavirus response, a sharp drop from 70.8% in February. But Widodo's approval rating remained roughly unchanged at 66.5%, compared with 69.5% in February.

The poll thus shows that many Indonesians continue to support the president himself even while being dissatisfied with his administration.

Once a furniture maker, Widodo is the first person from a common background to become president of Indonesia, where politics have traditionally been dominated by generals and elites. He is popular among the public, but his power base is weak. Therefore, he needs strong public support to run the government.

Releasing such a video showing an uncharacteristic side of Widodo's personality may be aimed at showing empathy with public dissatisfaction and fending off potential criticism against himself.

But some observers think that Widodo has not lived up to his responsibilities. Kunto Adi Wibowo, director of pollster KedaiKOPI, told the Jakarta Post newspaper that he wished the president had shown the same level of urgency in early March. In fact, it is difficult to say that Widodo has shown leadership in handling the coronavirus.

Indonesia's first infection was confirmed on March 2. While neighboring countries had been moving to restrict the entry of foreigners, the administration was complacent, even hammering out a campaign to promote tourism. Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto went so far as to make the nonscientific comment that prayer protected Indonesians from contracting the virus.

Widodo remained slow in responding to COVID-19 even after the number of cases spiked in mid-March because he was prioritizing the economy ahead the coronavirus. Municipalities, for example, were required to get approval from the central government to implement lockdowns.

Pressured by the Special Capital Region of Jakarta and other cities, the government finally decided to issue "large-scale social restrictions" on April 3. But it took another week until the lockdowns were actually implemented on April 10. The government's initial response was fatally slow, given the infection situation at the time.

Yet it continued to take a reactive approach. It did not "ban" people from returning to their hometowns until immediately before the end of the fasting month of Ramadan in late April. Because people were only "requested" not to do so, infections could have spread to rural districts as many Indonesians had already left urban areas.

In contrast to the president botched response, Jakarta Gov. Anies Baswedan made his presence felt as the COVID-19 spread. He was quick to call for lockdowns and is credited with paving the way for the introduction of large-scale social restrictions in April. When the decision to relax the measures was made in June, he was again quick to take action in restarting economic activities.

However, due to the relaxation being carried out somewhat hastily, despite the World Health Organization's warning against it, the number of new infections has remained at high levels. Anies was eventually forced to extend the restrictions, which were initially expected to be completely removed by the end of June, by at least two weeks.

"It's just that Anies shrewdly read trends in public opinion and did things differently from the Jokowi administration," said Ken Miichi, a professor at Waseda University's Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies.

Rivalry between Jokowi and Anies, who are competing for public favor, goes back years.

Anies, a liberal political scientist, joined Jokowi's cabinet as education and culture minister after he became president. But Anies did not have any notable achievements and was forced to leave the position in less than two years.

Immediately after that, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian and the then-governor of Jakarta, was implicated in a blasphemy incident involving Islam, the religion of the overwhelming majority of Indonesia's population. Jokowi was Basuki's predecessor and had promoted him to governor from his previous post as vice governor.

Anies approached Islamic extremists and ran in the gubernatorial election in February 2017, dashing Basuki's hope for a second term. Basuki is believed to have strong ambition to run in the next presidential election in 2024 to succeed Jokowi, who is not allowed to serve a third term under constitutional restrictions.

The Indonesian government was quick to ease large-scale social restrictions even as the number of coronavirus infections was rising.   © Reuters

Both Jokowi and Anies operate from the stance of trying to win the public's favor, and that itself is, for better or worse, the blessing of democracy. However, the Indikator Politik Indonesia survey found that the rate of satisfaction among respondents with Indonesia's democracy fell sharply to 49.5% from 75.6%. That is a steeper drop than the decline in the satisfaction rate for the government's response to the coronavirus. It can, therefore, be interpreted as reflecting the public's growing skepticism toward politicians, essentially regarding their words as mere stunts.

The pandemic has highlighted the view that high-handed governments are better able to effectively respond to crises than more democratic ones. But there were explosive increases in infections in Russia and Iran, where governments fall into the former category, while more democratically functioning polities in Germany, South Korea and Taiwan successfully controlled the disease. That outcome appears to indicate that such a difference between political systems may not necessarily reflect how well governments can deal with crises.

At the very least, we have found out this much: what differentiated the fate of various governments that fall under the latter category was whether they were able to make necessary decisions at the right time, even if it meant difficulties were forced on citizens. In Indonesia, which is variously ranked as the most democratic nation in Southeast Asia, harmful effects of populism are unfortunately beginning to show, as in the U.S. and Brazil.

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