Indonesian President Joko Widodo, commonly known as Jokowi, came to power amid great expectations. He was seen as a reforming president, one who would break through the self-serving façades of vested interests hobbling the economy and the government, and deliver for the poor and deprived. Initially it was feared that he’d be hobbled by a hostile parliament intent on rejecting or diverting his legislative program and threatening impeachment. Now, however, it seems more likely that he’ll be suffocated by shifting informal alliances of political friends and foes.
Those alliances have been building quietly for some time but came to a head recently when Jokowi’s nominee for police chief had corruption charges laid against him by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) the day before the parliamentary hearing on his nomination. The police immediately counter-charged the deputy chair of the KPK with giving false evidence to a hearing on an electoral complaint. The charge was leveled by a parliamentarian from Jokowi’s own party.
Suddenly, a rapidly-evolving high-stakes political farce was off and running. Parliament approved the president’s nomination for police chief despite the charges, the police indicted all the remaining judges of the KPK and instituted a pre-trial hearing for their nominee, the KPK proceeded with the case against the nominee but he and other witnesses refused to present themselves for questioning, the military readied itself to defend the KPK from the police, and the president talked of not interfering in legal processes and had lunch with military chiefs before departing on an overseas trip to disguise his dithering. The only winner out of those events is the military who can once again paint itself as saving the nation from self-serving feckless civilians.
On the surface, this is a power play between the parliament and the president and between agencies of the state and various permutations thereof. Superficially it’s also about the strategy for dealing with corruption. But at its core, it’s about the strategy for economic reform and the fundamental questions of politics: who gets what, when, where and how.
In most postcolonial countries, corruption is endemic and serves as an indirect form of taxation or disguised means of redistribution of government and private surpluses for personal and collective uses, for example to fund political parties. It can also keep elites politically quiescent and can be justified as a way of foiling unfair international competition and promoting economic nationalism. In Indonesia’s case that foreign bogey is supplemented by the 4% of Indonesian citizens of Chinese origin, a small element of whom dominate the private-sector economy and help justify the retention of a large parasitic state sector.
The police/KPK farce is a proxy in that political drama. The police have a reputation for corruption and some might think the judges of the KPK have been beneficiaries of it too. Still, the judges ’have had some notable successes and have unsettled the rent-seeking elites. Jokowi has added to that unease by cutting fuel subsidies—a great source of corruption—and proposing to open Indonesia to foreign investors and international competition. But his critics, even within his own party, conveniently forget that he’s also an economic nationalist as shown by his support for import substitution in various fields and food self-sufficiency.
The impasse between the police and the KPK will be resolved in one form or another in the near future. But the conflict has revealed the political vulnerability of the president and the lack of an overall policy on corruption to complement the activities of the KPK. The battle against corruption must address the question of a living wage for all public employees, raising public monies to cover the necessary increase in public salaries, transitional administrative and justice arrangements including amnesties and the conditions for granting them, and political-party funding arrangements, among many other matters.
Without open discussion and consensus on such delicate matters, Jokowi won’t get the parliamentary and public-sector support he needs to push his reform agenda. At the moment parliament is feigning support for him, but in reality he’s now in a bear hug that will be broken only when he goes back to basics and learns how to become a politician rather than the CEO of Indonesia Inc.
Jokowi doesn’t control the party that nominated him for the presidency. His party’s coalition doesn’t control parliament. And the option of forming his own party passed when he stood under Megawati’s banner. Any new party could not claim seats until the next elections and any turncoats would be expelled from their parties and parliament. Likewise the coterie of supporters in his cabinet and presidential office is no substitute for parliamentary support. Jokowi can go only so far without parliamentary support, especially on budgetary matters. The coming days will tell whether he has the political savvy to buttress his undoubted reform ambitions with astute political maneuvering or whether the bears will squeeze the life out of him.
Bob Lowry is an adjunct lecturer at the UNSW Canberra, Australian Defence Force Academy. Image courtesy of Flickr user Ben Francis.