Widodo’s big political gamble
30 Oct 2019|

Joko Widodo has taken a big gamble that he can run a more effective second-term administration by bringing in his strongest opponent. His political strategy, and possibly the success of his administration, will be defined by that move as he enters his final five years in office.

The decision is a product of both political culture and rational political playmaking—cultural, because Widodo’s Javanese roots dispose him to a political style that maintains at least the appearance of inclusion and aversion to open conflict, and rational because a large coalition potentially offers him a clearer path to enacting his agenda.

The political playmakers might applaud the appointment of Prabowo Subianto, Widodo’s challenger in the April presidential elections, to the post of minister of defence as the smart move. It contains Widodo’s biggest potential opponent and greatest point of resistance to the government’s program in the House of Representatives (DPR).

It gives Widodo, unique as a president in not controlling his own political machine, more scope to play the parties off against each other, including his nominal sponsor, the Indonesian Democratic Party Struggle (PDIP), and its proprietorial leader Megawati Sukarnoputri.

But there are four broad categories of risk for Widodo from bringing in a man who has run against him in two bitterly fought presidential elections and threatened to unleash civil and legal crises when he lost.

First, Prabowo, chair of the Gerindra Party, the third biggest in the DPR, could be a source of internal destabilisation. Throughout a long career in the public eye, the former army general has exhibited a strong authoritarian streak and a defiance of leaders. One has to wonder at the state of mind that permits Prabowo himself to believe that it’s a good idea to work as a minister under the man he only a few months ago dismissed as unfit for office.

In the ministerial line-up announced by Widodo last week, the defence portfolio will be overseen by Mahfud MD, the new coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs. Mahfud once served as a chief justice of the constitutional court and as defence minister under former president Abdurrahman Wahid, when he was prone to accusing the US and Australia of running spying operations and clashed with ambassadors from both countries.

Mahfud was Widodo’s initial choice for vice president; yet he doesn’t look like being a substantial check on a headstrong Prabowo.

The irritation of other political parties in the governing coalition over the inclusion in the cabinet of the biggest opposition party only serves to compound the potential for internal tensions. Without an expansion of the size of the cabinet, parties that backed Widodo in the elections have had to make way.

The Nasdem Party, led by tycoon Surya Paloh, looks like one of the big losers in the new administration. It was forced to relinquish the Attorney General’s Office and the Ministry of Trade—two prized jobs—in exchange for others of lesser money-making capacity and influence.

Nasdem obtained no additional ministerial slots, despite increasing the number of its seats in the DPR from 36 to 59. There’s been rumbling in Nasdem’s senior ranks about walking out of the government if things don’t go better for them from here.

Second, if Prabowo adopts an expansive view of his authority as minister, he might set back the clock on civil–military relations. With a bloated officer corps in the military (TNI), there has been pressure to restore the practice of appointing military men to civilian posts. Prabowo also might aim to push for a gradual return of the military to internal security operations.

For the live security challenge posed by the Papuan provinces, the appointment of Prabowo sends a bad signal. Widodo appears to have a Papua strategy based only on two strands—the ‘stick’ of firm internal security measures and the ‘carrot’ of new development projects. That approach bypasses Papuan demands for political dialogue and accountability for past human rights abuses—both of which look much less likely to happen.

The defence ministry is also an often overlooked source of financial power. How Prabowo manages the budget will be closely watched by rival political parties.

Third, Widodo has injected another awkward dimension into Indonesia’s relations with Western countries. Prabowo hasn’t been able to get a visa for either the US or Australia for a number of years because of his implication in various human rights cases, including the kidnapping of political activists in the lead-up to the fall of his one-time father-in-law, the late president Suharto.

Both the US and Australian embassies had contemplated the circumstances under which Prabowo could be permitted to travel when he was putative opposition leader. They put it in the too hard basket.

Now, both countries will have to set aside any discomfort over visits and photo-ops to embrace him as a dialogue partner. They have too much riding on a strategic relationship with Indonesia to do otherwise. Certainly, none of the Asian states, most importantly China, will be troubled by Prabowo’s chequered military past.

But it could crimp the space for increased Western engagement and create a focal point for protests, particularly on hot-button topics like Papua. The US military is keen to step up cooperation with TNI’s special forces, Kopassus, including the resumption of lethal training. It remains to be seen whether Prabowo’s appointment is taken by congressional critics of military engagement as a signal that TNI will be wedded to the past.

Finally, the inclusion of the biggest opposition party in the government threatens to weaken Indonesia’s democracy. The country’s political elites have always struggled with Western notions of dialectic democracy. In their hearts, they prefer an insulated mode of governing which prevails in various Asian capitals.

They won’t lament the absence of a substantive opposition in the DPR (at the moment only the small Islamic Prosperous Justice Party appears seriously committed to the role).

Already some of Widodo’s youthful allies are abandoning his support groups in protest against the Prabowo appointment. One of the big worries for democrats is that the government will acquiesce to political party plans to restore the power of the supra-parliamentary People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) to set policy guidelines and select presidents.

The elites might not like them, but direct elections have been very popular with Indonesian voters. They are unlikely to meekly accept an erosion of fundamental citizens’ rights.

That said, Widodo has taken steps to break up some old patronage systems and stave off the challenge to secular politics from Muslim activists. The appointment of retired general Fachrul Razi as minister for religious affairs breaks a longstanding linkage between Muslim politicians and a ministry that was rich in patronage opportunities. It sets up an effort to challenge religious radicalism.

But the Prabowo appointment is symbolic of a wider notion that weighs on Widodo’s second term. He oversees an administration that is politically mature in its habits and devoid of any of the excitement that accompanied his 2014 victory.

It always was probably wrong to assume Widodo was a social and political reformer of Western ilk. Increasingly, it looks like that was an expectation imposed on him by his youthful admirers, who believed his man-of-the-people image equated with a willingness to break the traditional pattern of elite politics. Widodo has shown he is a conservative governor in an Indonesian and Javanese meaning of that term.

He has taken a calculated bet that he can manage Prabowo and benefit from the weakening of external opposition. But it sets the tone for an administration that will be largely managerial, placing emphasis on economic invigoration and overcoming administrative inefficiency, even at the expense of the protection and advancement of social and political liberties.