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Close enough not good enough for Jokowi’s cabinet picks

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New President Joko Widodo shakes hands with Minister of trade Rahmat Gobel during the Working Cabinet's official inauguration at the presidential palace in Jakarta on October 27, 2014. (Photo: AAP)

In Brief

Indonesia’s new president, Joko Widodo (Jokowi) promised to bring a new spirit of reform to Indonesia. Indeed, he has offered nothing less than a ‘mental revolution’. In his first real test, the formation of cabinet, Jokowi seems to have gone for realpolitik over reform.


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What is striking about the new cabinet he announced on 26 October is how familiar it looks. It’s a cabinet with the standard mixture we have come to expect in democratic Indonesia: a few decent reformers are located in technocratic posts, but many party hacks also get seats. More appointments are surprisingly bad than are surprisingly good.

Indonesian cabinets always contain a mixture of intellectuals, business leaders, and technocrats, alongside party appointees. This usually makes it possible for reformers outside the government to take comfort from the presence of a few individuals with records of integrity and professional skill in the cabinet. Things are much the same this year.

The new minister for culture and elementary and secondary education, for example, is the highly respected Anies Baswedan — rector of Jakarta’s Paramadina University — and a man with many visionary ideas about the future of education in Indonesia. Pratikno, the rector of Gadjah Mada University and new state secretary, is also highly regarded. Some of the technocratic and economic ministers are respected in their fields. The new foreign affairs minister, Retno Marsudi, is the first woman in the post and a respected diplomat (as is almost always the case). Nila Moeloek, the new health minister, is a professor of medicine at the University of Indonesia and a strong advocate for public health (she’s also one of eight women in the cabinet — a new record).

No doubt some of these professionals will turn out to be very competent and productive ministers. But it is striking that so few of them (Anies Baswedan is the obvious exception) have established independent reputations as reformers, even though many such people were included in the many lists of potential cabinet members that circulated in the lead up to the announcement.

What is really striking about the new cabinet is how bad some of the appointments are. Special mention should be made of the new Defence Minister, Ryamizard Ryacudu. It has been a 15-year tradition to appoint civilians to this post, as a symbol of civilian supremacy in the new Indonesia. This appointment breaks that tradition. It also appals members of Indonesia’s human rights community.

As Army Chief of Staff back in the mid-2000s, Ryacudu infamously praised soldiers who were convicted of murdering a famous Papuan independence campaigner as ‘heroes’. He also actively tried to sabotage the Aceh peace process and intensify military operations there in the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami. He is the most conservative former military officer to have been included in a cabinet since 1999.

Another appointment ringing alarm bells in Indonesia is new state enterprises minister, Rini Soewandi. Like Ryacudu, Soewandi is a confidante of Megawati Soekarnoputri and owes her cabinet position to this connection. She was a trade and industry minister under Megawati, and was last year questioned by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) in regard to her alleged role in the massive Bank Indonesia (BI) liquidity assistance scandal. It is highly suspicious that a patronage politician like this should be appointed to head the State Enterprises Ministry, one of the ‘wettest’ in Indonesia and long a cash cow for the party that controlled it.

These appointments show that Jokowi has had to make compromises with the political parties who backed his presidential campaign and whose support he will need in parliament. Again, there is nothing unusual in this: Yudhoyono had six parties represented in his last cabinet; Jokowi has five. But it was believed that Jokowi would intervene to ensure that the party appointees were highly reputable and effective. He called on the KPK to screen candidates and weed out those suspected of corruption: the process led to some candidates proposed by the parties being abandoned. But there is little evidence it led to an overall improvement of the quality of party appointees.

Jokowi, despite much speculation, did not appoint any of the PDI-P’s younger and more dynamic reformers. Instead his cabinet includes figures like Tjahjo Kumolo, the party’s unscrupulous general secretary and all-round fixer appointed to the politically crucial position of Interior Minister. (Kumolo is another new minister with the dubious distinction of having been questioned by the KPK). Puan Maharani, Megawati’s daughter and one of the most reviled figures in contemporary Indonesia, gets a senior coordinating ministerial post.

The new coordinating minister for economic affairs, Sofyan Djalil, was an undistinguished minister for state enterprises during Yudhoyono’s first term and is in the new cabinet because he is close to Vice President Jusuf Kalla. And so on.

It was always clear that Jokowi would have to make compromises with the political parties that backed him and the old forces of patronage that underpin them. In that regard, there is little that is surprising in the composition of the new cabinet. But it is surprising just how far Jokowi has gone in making these compromises.

This is a cabinet that continues rather than breaks with Indonesia’s emerging political traditions. It is possible that some of the ministers will emerge as strong reformers. But at first glance, this cabinet is far from being the fresh start that Jokowi promised.

Edward Aspinall is a professor of politics in the Department of Political and Social Change in The Australian National University’s School of International, Political and Strategic Studies, College of Asia and the Pacific.

This article first appeared here in the New Mandala.

2 responses to “Close enough not good enough for Jokowi’s cabinet picks”

  1. One appointment worth mentioning is that of Susi Pudjiastuti, maritime and fisheries minister. Billed in the Indonesian press as a dynamic and successful businesswoman, Susi runs an airline with such a bad safety record that some Western embassies have forbidden their employees to fly on it.

    A heavy smoker, Susi is an unconventional figure who has a taste for Western husbands. Her previous husband, apparently a Swiss citizen, turned up at her installation ceremony. Her current husband is another European.

    It seems that Susi’s appointment is all Jokowi’s own work and not the result of Megawati’s overweening, lamentable influence over him. Susi has already attracted a great deal of publicity and one needn’t be a soothsayer to predict that she will clash sooner or later with the high-profile Rini Soemarno (formerly Soewandi), who, as the author of this post points out,is another businesswoman with a chequered record and a close friend of Megawati’s.

    An aspect of Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu’s profile of note is that, as a former army chief of staff, he doesn’t seem the best person to supervise the shift of power and budget resources from the army to the navy and air force that will be essential if Jokowi’s constant talk of Indonesia as a ‘maritime axis’ is to acquire any reality.

    Some Indonesians have greeted Ryamizard’s appointment as the prelude to a re-run of Nixon’s visit to China. In other words, you want precisely a former general to swing the balance away from the army, just as you needed a conservative president to break the ice with China. Well, he may yet surprise us but it is already pretty obvious that Ryamizard, who once claimed there were 60,000 foreign spies in Indonesia, doesn’t quite have either Nixon’s grasp of geopolitics or an Indonesian Kissinger to guide him.

    • Hmm.. another view from the sideline, Mr Ward

      While you view has some merit, I believe it is overly simplistic on whole lot of matters .

      1. While you might have a point about cheap budget airlines which are serving established airports, Susi Air are pioneering routes from mostly from unestablished airstrips with higher hazards that making providing this service one of the wonders of the world. The comparisons you draw are out of this world.

      And while her taste and style may be out of the ordinary … but Ms Susi is highly respected in her home town by the peple and local leaders alike. Why? Because of her no-nonsense attitude and generosity .afterall to most of us (ordinary indonesians) prefer her performance services to the community over her taste. (I’m starting to feel like I’m talking to Prabowo ver 0.2 now )

      2. You look at the appointment of Ryacudufrom the wrong angle. JKW has a big dreams on mattersw of the indonesian defence. He needs a tough but respected minister to take the flak and keep the army in line as he shifts the defence budget from the army to the navy and air force so he can realize his maritime axis vision with the minimal disruption . after all who else has the reputation for the most hardcore nationalist yet “clean” in the republic today bar none but Ryacudu. At least he might get his maritime axis goals right and everybody will be satisfied in the end. And he doesn’t need a Nixon type to stand in that hot spot .

      This is the real world .

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