Bobby Yip / Reuters

Jokowi's Panicky Politics

Frayed Nerves in Indonesia

Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s problems would have seemed far-fetched less than a year ago. Then the president, widely known as Jokowi, was celebrated for his democratic credentials and hailed as Indonesia’s first leader from outside the Suharto-era elite. Now, critics and supporters alike are wondering how secure Indonesia actually is from authoritarian backsliding.

The catalyst for this reversal was Jokowi’s mid-July announcement of an expansion of his government’s discretionary power to ban civil society organizations. Although the move is intended to project strength by taking on the Islamic groups that brought down his political ally Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, the former governor of Jakarta, the ban threatens freedom of association for all citizens and is unlikely to make him more secure. It also has prompted growing criticism and concern about an otherwise popular leader. 


By mid-2016, Jokowi—the furniture-salesman-turned-politician who was then in his second year in office—was cruising. A highly popular figure, he had seemingly mastered national politics. He was finally at peace with his party and political patron, and he had cannily wielded his power to elicit friendly leadership in several other parties. Laser-focused on his standing in opinion polls, willing to cede extensive ground on almost anything beyond his narrow policy interests, and deeply occupied with criss-crossing the archipelago to cut ribbons in front of roads, ports, and projects, Jokowi cut a studied and cautious political figure.

To be fair, Jokowi had yet to deliver on his pre-election promises to resolve outstanding human rights cases, reform the judiciary and civil service, and lead the country unburdened by elite actors and institutions left over from three decades of military rule. But despite the disappointments, Jokowi hardly seemed likely to tip Indonesia back toward dark authoritarianism not seen since the fall of President Muhammad Suharto in 1998. Indeed, up until mid-2016, he had delivered workaday, if not spectacular, leadership. Jokowi’s perceived insecurity is evident in his approach to Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia.

But then, came a series of reversals. First there was the Jakarta gubernatorial election and Ahok’s offhand comments about Islam, prompting Islamist groups to organize several large anti-Ahok demonstrations in the capital city. Jokowi reacted poorly, moving too late to head off the growing campaign against his ally (and by proxy, himself) and then compensating through clumsy and ill-advised moves to undermine the growing disquiet. Today, although in some ways the older Jokowi is still on the scene—pushing his agenda of infrastructure spending and boosting access to health care and education for rural, lower-class voters—in other ways, the focused, assured tactician has disappeared. 

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