What you need to know
Ben Bland's biography of Indonesia's president Joko Widodo is a study of compromises made to ascend the heights of political power.
Workers across Indonesia have been protesting the so-called “job creation” law, based on the expectation that the bill will harm workers and the environment.
Demonstrations against the law marked the peak of public opposition towards President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, as his administration also failed to contain the coronavirus. Though Jokowi promised to prioritize public health, his solution was to spend US$5.2 million for influencers to promote the country for tourism.
Jokowi’s image is filled with contradictions, especially after his re-election in 2019. Ben Bland, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Lowy Institute, charts Jokowi’s rise to power and politics in his latest book Man of Contradictions.
Bland writes that this book was his attempt to elucidate some of Jokowi’s contradictions after spending nearly 20 years “trying to make sense of Indonesia” as a student of Indonesian politics, foreign correspondent, and an analyst. In addition to his interactions with the president, Bland interviewed dozens of ministers, senior officials, financial backers, as well as ordinary people whose ambitions Jokowi has tried to reflect.
Originally a furniture maker apparently without political ambition, Jokowi viewed stability as a prerequisite for economic growth. His values, which have remained consistent, aligned with those of Suharto, the infamous dictator who ruled over Indonesia from 1967 to 1998. Bland insists that if we want to understand Jokowi as a politician, we must understand him as a furniture maker.
Jokowi’s steady accomplishments in the furniture business led him to the political stage. He was elected as mayor of Solo, a small town in central Java, then quickly ascended the political ladder as he developed a reputation of being a “going to ground” leader.
His popularity cannot be denied. When Bland was still a Financial Times correspondent, he witnessed the enthusiasm from the grassroots community when Jokowi was governor of Jakarta. I was a volunteer at a healthcare NGO at the time, and I saw crowds hysterically swarming over Jokowi’s motorcade when he visited one of the slum areas in North Jakarta.
Being the first president without military background or the support of a political dynasty, Jokowi became a national sensation. He was portrayed as a savior of democracy, a hero of reform. But beyond his ability to win the affection of Indonesian voters, Bland considered Jokowi’s political approach disorganized and devoid of strategy.
Indonesia’s politics does not allow an outsider to carry out his agenda without interference from elites. Contradictions between Jokowi’s man-of-the-people image and his reliance on elite backers have become more apparent over time. He has transparently had no plan on how to manage the ranks of politicians, tycoons, and generals that lined up around him.
After winning a second term in a dramatic election in 2019, Jokowi proved himself a master of building a large party coalition by bringing back his competitor, Prabowo, into the fold. Coupled with compromises with political parties and tycoons, Jokowi secured three-quarters of the parliament, but they didn’t translate into an effective coalition. He has increasingly turned to ex-military figures and dulled his promise to fight corruption and investigate past human rights abuses.
Amid waves of changing dynamics, Bland noted a pattern that has not changed since Jokowi became mayor of Solo: He has always been a pragmatist rather than an idealist. He is a leader driven by action, not ideas. He is a developmentalist. Thus, he loves infrastructure and believes that higher growth is essential to create more jobs and necessary to maintain political legitimacy.
One line that caught my attention was a rare description of the president. It came from the statement of an adviser: “Jokowi doesn't like analysis, he likes action and decisions. There was no proper analysis of which infrastructure projects would boost growth and productivity the most. Instead he just pushed projects depending on where he was visiting.”
Another senior official said, “Jokowi is instinctive and stubborn. Once he's decided on something it’s very hard to change his mind.”
These comments affirmed Jokowi’s paradoxical image in a democracy — especially after he downplayed the pandemic by sidelining epidemiologists, put military figures in charge, blocked local initiative, and prioritized economic growth at all costs. Worse, Jokowi seems to be lurching the country back into authoritarianism. Indonesian police pledged that they would arrest not only people who spread misinformation about coronavirus but also those who “insulted” the president or other government officials.
In Bland’s observation, Jokowi seems to view democracy largely as a way to achieve his desired economic outcomes.
On the international stage, Jokowi wants to use foreign policy as a tool to generate investment and wastes no time in power politics. In his first five years, Jokowi didn’t attend a single UN General Assembly but preferred going to the G20 and APEC because they boosted trade and investment.
Did power change Jokowi, or did it just reveal his true character? Bland refuses to give Jokowi a political label. The author acknowledged that there are efforts from non-elites to change the country, but they are restrained by what has come before. Ultimately, he interpreted this contradiction as part of a necessary nation-building process that shall be embraced.
As a minority Indonesian who is affected by Jokowi’s contradictions, I have a hard time agreeing with Bland’s conclusion. Indonesia’s current condition cannot be separated from its historic baggage, and good intentions alone are not enough for an outsider to go unhindered. But as a leader, Jokowi doesn’t need to be an elite puppet. He can choose to listen to the people instead of ignoring their voices. He can choose not to sign the controversial Omnibus Bill on Job Creation to defy his opposition.
The passage of this law is a sign that signals the coming of a second New Order regime. A president’s contradictions are to be criticized, not embraced. If democracy failed, Indonesia isn’t a nation in the making but one that isn’t going anywhere.
TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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