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The "Indonesian Obama" Hasn't Taken Office Yet, and Already His Opponents Have Declared War

Oscar Siagian/Getty Images

The storyline was perfect. Joko Widodo—a slum-born former furniture dealer popularly known as Jokowi—climbed the ladder of Indonesian politics as a humble, non-establishment figure committed to effective government. After making a name for himself as a successful mayor and governor, the populist candidate faced off against Prabowo Subianto—the right-wing son-in-law of Suharto, the late dictator—in this summer’s presidential election. The bulk of the political and business establishment backed Prabowo, who launched a smear campaign alleging that Jokowi wasn’t Muslim. When voters chose Jokowi anyway, albeit narrowly, commentators hailed the strength and vibrancy of Indonesia’s young democracy. For the first time, a political outsider had run for president and triumphed over Indonesia’s entrenched political elite. The promise of the Reformasi movement—that Indonesia would develop an open, responsive system of government—was one step closer to being realized. Pingkan Irwin, a pro-democracy activist, summed it up: “After the election I thought I could sleep a little.”

For the last few weeks, pro-democracy Indonesians have not been sleeping easy. In the final weeks before Jokowi’s inauguration, Prabowo’s Merah-Putih (Red-White) coalition has used its control over the legislature to pass bills that will cement the establishment’s control over parliament and make it difficult for Jokowi to govern. The most egregious is a bill that ended direct elections for village heads, mayors, and governors. The significance of this legislation is difficult to overstate: clean politicians like Jokowi, unbeholden to traditional patronage networks, entered politics by winning local direct elections. Selecting administrators through crony-dominated assemblies is a sure way to plug the pipeline of non-establishment political talent. Leaders of the Merah-Putih coalition, buoyed by their success at ending direct regional elections, suggested that their next step would be to end direct elections for president. The coalition almost certainly doesn’t have the votes to make that happen. Nonetheless, just a few months after Indonesian citizens trooped to the polls and rejected Suharto’s son-in-law, and less than a week before Jokowi will be inaugurated, Indonesian citizens were forced to contemplate whether their hard-won democracy was about to be transformed beyond recognition.

Traditionally, Indonesian presidential candidates will promise cabinet posts in exchange for a political party’s support. Jokowi refused to do this. He encouraged parties to join his coalition, but said that cabinet posts would be decided based on merit. Prabowo Subianto had no such compunction. When he ran for president, he didn’t have to offer parties much to guarantee them more than they’d get from Jokowi. He successfully formed the Merah-Putih coalition that—along with its allies—controls 63 percent of seats in parliament. Prabowo spoke of it as a permanent coalition that would carry on whether he won or lost. Political experts scoffed: If Prabowo lost the election, coalition parties would jump to Jokowi’s camp so that they could have a say in governance and reward their patronage networks. That’s how Indonesian politics has always worked.

But somehow Prabowo, despite losing, managed to keep his coalition together. It was an even bigger shock when his coalition amended the rules of parliament to grant his coalition crucial committee posts, and then passed a bill ending regional direct elections. Hashim Djojohadikusumo, Prabowo’s multimillionaire brother and architect of the Merah-Putih coalition, expressed deep anger toward Jokowi. “Yes, Mr. Jokowi, there is a price to be paid,” he told the Wall Street Journal. Hashim promised that Merah-Putih would form an active opposition, saying, “We will be able to control the legislative agenda.” After Jokowi is inaugurated next week, he faces the uphill task of pushing his reform agenda through a parliament virulently opposed to his presidency. 

For American observers, there is something familiar about the scene of a would-be post-partisan president confronting an intransigent opposition in the legislature. But, according to Kevin O’Rourke, political analyst and author of Reformasi, a newsletter, Jokowi has some advantages that President Obama does not. “The way [Obama and Jokowi] operate is going to be very different. [Jokowi] has a lot of executive office experience," he said. "He’s not a speechmaker at all. He’s a results oriented problem-solver.” Because Indonesian presidents are vested with greater powers than American ones, O’Rourke thinks that Jokowi will be able to accomplish crucial parts of his agenda even without parliamentary support. “[Jokowi] is focused on clean governance efforts, and internal reforms of the bureaucracy and civil service. For that, he really doesn’t need much cooperation, if any, from parliament.”

What's more, there are encouraging signs that Indonesia's democracy will emerge stronger as a result of the Merah-Putih coalition's efforts to stifle it.

Polls show the public supports Jokowi’s drive to reform politics, and that over 80 percent of Indonesians oppose the move to end direct elections. “The percentage of people wanting to see democracy as our system is overwhelming,” said Tobias Basuki, a researcher at CSIS, a prominent Indonesian think tank. Iterations of the hashtag #shameonyouSBY—the acronym for Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono,the outgoing president who failed to stop the ban on direct regional elections—trended on Twitter. SBY himself was so startled by the resistance that he is forcing parliament to revisit the decision and is now campaigning for democratic elections to be reinstated. Young Indonesian activists have launched a variety of creative actions to oppose parliamentary machinations, including a drive to recruit members of the public to sit in on parliamentary sessions and live-tweet what’s going on. Pingkan Irwin, the democracy activist who is helping organize the drive, is convinced that after more Indonesians realize that they won’t be able to elect their local leaders, the public will respond even more forcefully.

But how? A major problem with Indonesia’s young democracy is that political parties lack ideology, and they function, essentially, as formalized patronage networks. As a result, voters have little sense of what individual parties stand for, and struggle to reward and punish parties in the voting booth. Now, divisions are clearer: one coalition stands for expanding democratic rights, another stands for taking them away. 

Sandra Hamid, Country Director for the Asia Foundation said, “For the first time Indonesian politics has a real opposition. I wish it were a much healthier opposition… [There is a] need for a clear division between the ruling party and the opposition. Only then can we put more substance in our elections, only then can we use elections as a mechanism to reward and punish politicians.” 

After the vote that ended direct regional elections, Jokowi said, “People must make a note [of] which political parties have robbed them of their political rights. People must write them down.” 

When Prabowo built Merah-Putih, he created something durable enough to survive his loss, but also durable enoughfor voters to remember during the next national election. We’re five years away from that, but all signs indicate that when they get the chance, Indonesian voters are going to punish his coalition.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Pingkan Irwin's last name.