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Be careful what you wish for, Indonesia

One hundred days ago, on Oct. 20, Joko Widodo surfed into office as president of Indonesia on a tidal wave of expectations. Voters believed he would announce a cabinet of new faces -- technocrats rather than crusty, old-time politicians -- who would make life better for the poor. Political analysts expected that he would be stymied by the old-timers. No one predicted the actual course of events: that Widodo would bend the old guard to his purpose, then slash away at his popularity with sabers of his own making.     

     On reflection, last July's presidential election should have alerted us to just how difficult Widodo would find it to please the Indonesian electorate, which was faced with a stark choice. One candidate, Prabowo Subianto, was a strongman deeply embedded in the political aristocracy that has controlled Indonesia since independence. Forty-seven percent of Indonesians chose him precisely because they favored his paternalistic, decisive, top-down style of leadership, and because they knew he had the political connections to make things work.

     The second candidate, Widodo, was a modest political outsider with very fragile support networks who sought to achieve equitable goals by listening, discussing and compromising, not by fiat. Fifty-three percent of voters chose Widodo precisely because they were tired of political cronyism, because they wanted to be listened to, and because they trusted him to change the way things work. Curiously, though, they also seem to want quick decisions and decisive leadership. An outsider who can impose his will through institutions controlled by the very oligarchy that he has pledged to decimate? It was never likely.

A fraught start

Widodo fell at the first hurdle in terms of cronyism, naming a cabinet that included many old-timers who were woven tightly into the tapestry of national patronage. This dented his popularity, but it was a necessary move. Indonesia is one of the most diverse countries on earth, and a dozen political parties are represented in parliament; to keep its kaleidoscope of geographical, ethnic, religious, social and economic constituencies in balance, not to mention achieving any measure of heft in the legislature, all leaders have had to cut deals, whatever they may have said on the campaign trail.

     Some of Widodo's appointments, notably to posts critical for effective reform, such as those of attorney general and minister of justice, were particularly disappointing. But anyone who really expected a cabinet free of politically imposed deadwood misunderstands the nature of democracy in Indonesia.

     To an extent, the dealmaking worked. Though faced with an openly hostile parliamentary majority loyal to his rival in the presidential race, Widodo has made headway on a number of important issues. Helped by an oil price in apparent free-fall, he has removed or reduced the energy subsidies that were sucking the marrow out of the development budget. He appears to have broad backing for a revised national budget that doubles spending on desperately needed improvements to the country's shambolic infrastructure. And he has shepherded through legislation that restores direct elections for district and provincial heads, thus ensuring that decentralized decision-making will remain somewhat responsive to popular needs and desires.


Some commentators have been surprised that parliament has not obstructed the president more actively. That may be because his opponents have realized that the political tap-dancing required to overcome his outsider status is leading Widodo into trouble of his own making. The most obvious recent example is the president's nomination of Budi Gunawan to head the national police.

     Gunawan once worked as adjutant to Megawati Sukarnoputri, a former president who chairs the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), under whose colors Widodo stood for the presidency. He has been under investigation by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) for at least six months. Shortly after Widodo nominated Gunawan to head law enforcement in Indonesia, the KPK formally named him as being suspected of corruption. Though the details of the case are not yet known, it appears to have been sparked by the accumulation of $5.9 million in Gunawan's personal bank account during his tenure at the helm of the police's Career Development Bureau, one of the wettest parts of a police force already awash in a culture of bribery. Gunawan insists he is not guilty, explaining that the money was intended as a business loan for his son, who was 19 at the time.

     When he was putting together his cabinet, Widodo ran the names of all his potential appointments past the KPK to ensure he was not appointing any known or suspected villains. Yet he did not do the same when appointing the country's top policeman. The nomination prompted howls of protest from Indonesians of all stripes, with the single exception of parliamentarians. They quickly approved the nomination, perhaps intent on maximizing the president's embarrassment. Even the heavy metal pop group that rocked Widodo toward electoral success at his final campaign rally in a Jakarta stadium has written an open letter to the president, co-signed by several of Indonesia's more respected intellectuals, warning of street protests if Gunawan actually takes up the post as police head.     

     The row escalated after the police, apparently in revenge, arrested a senior figure in the KPK on charges dredged up from his role as a lawyer before he joined the anti-corruption body. Still Widodo did not rescind the nomination, merely postponing Gunawan's appointment.

     Some observers read the debacle as a sign that the president was in political thrall to his PDI-P boss, former President Megawati, and that Widodo was thus unable to provide strong and independent leadership. Perhaps that is true. The alternative explanation, which boils down to presidential incompetence, is hardly better.

     Other seemingly baffling policies appear, on reflection, to be aimed at demonstrating to Indonesian voters just how decisive Widodo can be as a leader. What they actually demonstrate is that he is perfectly happy to shape national policy on the basis of sound-bite potential rather than evidence, sometimes at the risk of sparking other, bigger problems.

Drugs and fish

Widodo is concerned that too many young Indonesians are dying because they use illegal drugs; the habit kills between 40 and 50 a day, according to the National Narcotics Board. The president's solution: execute the 66 people who are on death row for smuggling drugs. Six of them, five foreigners and one Indonesian, have already been put to death since he came to power. Data he does not cite, also from the narcotics board, shows that drug use among young people halved between 2006 and 2011 -- a period when no one was executed. Foreigners make up less than 0.3% of the 45,000 people arrested each year for drug offences in Indonesia. He does not say that there is also a fair amount of evidence that the police and the army are among the biggest facilitators of the drug trade, sometimes in competition with one another. Nor does he mention harm-reduction programs that keep drug users free from HIV and hepatitis while helping them toward rehabilitation. These are programs that save young Indonesians instead of killing them.

     Then there is fish. Indonesia is the world's largest archipelagic nation, and it pulls a lot of fish and shellfish out of the sea. In 2013, the catch was valued by the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry at $7.5 billion, half of it sold overseas. Though that is 66% more than five years earlier, Widodo thinks it is not good enough; too many of Indonesia's 2.6 million fishermen are still poor. Why? Because other countries are stealing Indonesian fish, he says.

     He cites data from the country's National Audit Board suggesting that Indonesia is losing around $25 billion worth of fish each year to some 5,700 foreign fishing vessels. In other words, the president believes that seven times more fish are being stolen than are being legally exported.

     Data that defies logic should be questioned before becoming the basis for policy. Widodo has accepted the audit numbers and responded by ordering security forces to sink boats from neighboring countries. The seas of Southeast Asia are dotted with disputed islands, and Indonesia's relationship with some of its neighbors, notably Malaysia, is already fractious. Inflaming passions with bellicose neighbors does not seem calculated to benefit small fishermen. What they need is better access to ice, cold storage, and credit that they can invest in boats and equipment, together with some sensible initiatives to manage fish stocks for the long term.

     Kill the small-time foreign drug dealers and save the country's youth. Destroy foreign boats and save the small-scale fisherman. Both are simple, evidence-free equations that will probably do more to inflame xenophobia than to save lives or incomes, but that play well to a domestic gallery that wants decisive leadership from its president.

     Widodo has shown that he can make popular policies work at the city level. If he wants to meet the expectations of the tens of millions who voted for him, and even of some of the tens of millions who did not, he will have to remind himself of the important difference between popular policies that deliver real benefits over the long term and populist policies that deliver a quick, nationalist high but do not reduce the poverty, inequity or cronyism that he once so ably opposed.

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

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