An outcome for Indonesia: a challenge for Jokowi

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Despite much protest,  political posturing and refusal to concede,  their opponents - the petulant former general Prabowo Subianto and his deputy, former Minister for the Economy  Hatta Rajasa - will not be sworn in on 20th October.  Prabowo has announced challenges in other courts but these are almost certain to fail, given the Constitutional Court has exclusive jurisdiction over election outcomes.

In fact, the Constitutional Court’s decision has accelerated a reconfiguring of Indonesian politics that began soon after election day on 9 July, and results to a large extent from Jokowi’s status as a political outsider.  He is a successful self-made businessman from a poor background who has repeatedly won popular elections, first as Mayor of the central Javanese town of Solo (Surakarta), then as Governor of Jakarta - including against established incumbents. He will be the first president since the fall of Soeharto’s authoritarian regime who was not a member of the elite during that time.

He will also be the first to come to power without being weighed down by major political, personal and  financial obligations to members of the existing elite. Unlike Prabowo, Jokowi is a cleanskin with a record of clean governance and reform. That makes his presidency a potential threat to those who enjoyed power under outgoing President Yudhoyono.

This is one reason why members of the political elite scrambled to join Prabowo’s Red and White Coalition during the election campaign, and why there are now intense negotiations going on behind the scenes to change sides. The parties and leaders who had opposed Jokowi are now trying to find ways to get a foothold in the winning side. Jokowi is not in a hurry to welcome the latecomers but Prabowo’s coalition nonetheless seems to be fraying.

In fact, Prabowo has lost more than the top job. He has been campaigning for years and he and his tycoon brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, spent huge amounts to get within six or so percentage points of victory, as did many of his now disgruntled wealthy supporters. Prabowo will struggle to maintain the formidable power base he built over the last five years.

Even his own deputy seems increasingly uncomfortable - as well as he might, given Rajasa now faces serious corruption investigations linked to his time as Transport Minister in Yudhoyono’s first term. The kick-back allegations against Rajasa might well have gone nowhere had Prabowo won. After all,  Prabowo - who stands for the old system of patronage politics -  said during the campaign that he would like to roll back the democratising constitutional reforms and transparency measures introduced after Soeharto, his former father-in–law, was toppled in 1998.

Another key Prabowo supporter is Aburizal Bakrie, also a tycoon and head of Soeharto’s former party, GOLKAR. He  has been a major player in Indonesian politics for decades but is now very unpopular.  For the first time in many years, he finds himself without the leverage over the government that he has long used to protect his faltering business empire.  He also faces a push from within GOLKAR to replace him with incoming Vice President Kalla. There is a precedent for this – Kalla took back control of GOLKAR from a rival last time he was Vice President, also in Yudhoyono’s first term.  Bakrie now finds himself increasingly isolated and blamed for GOLKAR picking the wrong side.

Yudhoyono's Democrat party is in trouble too. Its credibility shattered by a string of corruption scandals that led to the jailing or resignation of much of its leadership, it did poorly in the elections for the legislature (the DPR), lost its large plurality,  and then supported Prabowo’s failed candidacy.  It is now split between those who, like Yudhoyono himself, see opposition as a chance to rebuild, and those who want a place in Jokowi’s government.  

In the meantime, the incoming administration is focused on the vital issue of cabinet formation.  As in the US, the Indonesian cabinet is appointed from outside the legislature.  Jokowi has said he wants a government of technocrats, not party hacks, and will require political party leaders to resign from their posts if they want to take up a ministry. He has also approved Facebook surveys polling the public on possible ministerial candidates. In an effort to select ministers without compromised pasts, he even has investigators doing background checks to identify unexplained wealth that might suggest corruption.

All this would be a true revolution in Indonesian political culture but it remains to be seen if Jokowi can pull it off. His own party, PDI-P, certainly does not have a clean record, and many of its leaders expect to be rewarded for backing his candidacy,  including the party leader, former President Megawati Soekarnoputri.  Jokowi will also face opposition in the DPR because his party holds a plurality of only 20 per cent. The next few months will be crucial in deciding whether he can chip enough away from Prabowo’s larger legislative coalition to get his agenda through once he takes office.  

Even if he does, there is no guarantee Jokowi won’t face the sort of opposition that handicapped Yudhono throughout his two terms in office. Party discipline is very weak in the DPR and members often ignore their party’s position, so new coalitions have to be built for most new Bills.  Jokowi certainly has a strong record as a quiet but effective negotiator, but that is bound to be severely tested in the months ahead, given Prabowo has already said he will push for a legislative investigation into the conduct of the elections.  

Like Obama in the US, Jokowi comes to office burdened by extraordinarily high, perhaps unrealistic, hopes that his administration will be transformative.  Despite strong GDP growth, Indonesia’s many ‘wicked problems’ (including institutionalised corruption, poor infrastructure, grossly inadequate  transport, weak foreign investment, crippling fuel subsidies, uneven wealth distribution, local religious tensions and slow bureaucratic reform) remain unresolved.

It will take real political genius to start fixing these quickly enough to maintain public trust, given Prabowo and other disgruntled elite figures will be out there waiting - itching for the opportunity to take Jokowi down.