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Jokowi lacks leadership on corruption

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In Brief

The higher they rise, the harder they fall. No politician in post-Suharto Indonesia has risen higher and faster than Joko Widodo (Jokowi), whose win in the 2014 presidential elections was considered a breath of fresh air for a vibrant but corrupt democracy. The reality of his presidency, though, is not what civil society, foreign governments and investors were crossing their fingers for. After eight months in office Jokowi looks surprisingly conservative, out of touch, and out of his depth.


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As an outsider to the Jakarta establishment, his tenure was always going to marked by a mishmash of deal making and confrontation, especially with his own PDI-P party and its leader, former president Megawati Sukarnoputri. Her determination to dictate to the president on personnel and policy matters has far exceeded analysts’ predictions. Jokowi’s surprising weakness in the face of lobbying from Megawati and other oligarchs has vindicated critics who brand him a ‘puppet’ of party bosses.

Serious moves to shake up over-regulated and protected sections of the economy are off the table so long as his relationship with the political elite remains tense. A widely-applauded boost to infrastructure spending is being largely channelled through state-owned firms to keep rent seekers and ideologues happy. Fear of bad polls is also behind the partial reversal of the brave decision, made during his brief political honeymoon, to scrap Indonesia’s ruinously expensive petrol subsidies. It seems that, under Jokowi, Indonesia’s economy will continue to muddle through, with reform as constrained by the political economy of corruption as ever.

Politics has also spilled over into Indonesia’s foreign relations. Jokowi’s lack of interest in the wider world was expected to lead to foreign policy technocrats taking the lead. To some extent this has been true. Yet the president’s focus on the home front means that decisions made for domestic political reasons, such as executing foreign drug convicts and sinking illegal fishing boats, are made without serious consideration of their effects on Indonesia’s reputation and relationships abroad.

The fight against high-level corruption has also suffered. Under pressure from Megawati, Jokowi shocked the public with an attempt to appoint a police chief tainted by serious allegations of graft. Indonesia’s most respected law enforcement institution, the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), has been cowed by sustained attacks from a police force increasingly hostile to reform.

Jokowi’s appointment of political party figures to head the Attorney-General’s department and law ministry shows how little importance he places on cleaning up the justice system. More concerning still have been quiet efforts by the military to get back into areas of civilian governance — such as delivering rural development programs and providing security for government facilities — from which reformers had extricated it.

Jokowi still has several years to prove he is capable of making Indonesia’s economy more competitive and its government less corrupt — that is, if he wants to. But some insiders now worry that he simply lacks the appetite to take on vested interests whatever the political circumstances.

Liam Gammon is a PhD candidate at the College of Asia and the Pacific, the Australian National University.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Leadership in the region.

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