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Jakarta Post

President Jokowi is an outsider, but why is his Cabinet full of insiders?

  • M. Taufiqurrahman

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Thu, October 24, 2019   /   03:13 pm
President Jokowi is an outsider, but why is his Cabinet full of insiders? President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo greets Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto during the inauguration of Indonesia Onward Cabinet ministers on Wednesday at the State Palace. (JP/Seto Wardhana)

When Joko "Jokowi" Widodo was elected President for the first term in 2014, his victory meant a lot for underdogs and ordinary people everywhere in the nation. If a furniture businessman from a second-tier city in Central Java, who has a deep working-class background could ascend to the highest office in the land, many were certainly convinced that elitism was dead and that meritocracy had finally won the day.

Some optimists chalked the ascension of Jokowi to the presidency up to a breakthrough in the country's political system, in that a local figure known for his can-do attitude, who was not part of Jakarta's oligarchy, could finally gain access to the most powerful position.

When assembling his first term Cabinet, President Jokowi made efforts to craft a narrative that he was indeed a champion for all underdogs. His choice of self-made millionaire Susi Pudjiastuti, who is known for her rags-to-riches story, as maritime affairs and fisheries minister, as well as Gadjah Mada University rector Pratikno, a humble political science professor with country boy roots, appeared to have been motivated by the intention to reward hard work and perseverance.

But in an environment dominated by vested interests, hard work and perseverance, qualities that are the building blocks of a meritocracy, was not enough to survive. And for an outsider who had no experience navigating Jakarta's corridors of power -- and no political party he could claim his own -- Jokowi knew he needed all the help he could get not only to make it to the top but also to survive in a cutthroat environment.

His move to Jakarta and then his election as Jakarta governor in 2012 was brokered by Megawati Soekarnoputri, chair of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and matriarch of the country's most prominent political family. But it was also well-known that it was Prabowo Subianto, chairman of the Gerindra Party, who persuaded Megawati to nominate Jokowi as Jakarta governor and paired him with Basuki "Ahok' Thahaja Purnama.

If Jokowi had it easy in the Jakarta gubernatorial election in 2012, the presidential election in 2014 was a much more difficult undertaking, although his massive popularity helped him carry the day. And although he finally paid his dues to political parties that supported his bid, it was done with the intention of doing things that would reduce harm to his brand of the can-do politician. In his first term Cabinet, other than Megawati's daughter Puan Maharani, even figures with a background from political parties were credible and dependable.

Alas, the past five years have done a lot of damage to Jokowi's brand and events in the past two months, from student protests to escalating tension in Papua, have dealt blows to his standing. And it was against this backdrop that Jokowi had to assemble his Cabinet for the second term. And going against the advice that one should not make a decision based on fear, Jokowi did exactly that and the lineup for his second term looks like it was dreamed up by a Count in feudal England.

As the road ahead is expected to be rocky, Jokowi summoned all the help he could muster, assembling a motley crew of political party hacks and scions of business and political families.

For the second term, President Jokowi doubled down on his effort to put in more people whose last names speak louder than their qualifications for the job. On top of having Airlangga Hartarto, Agus Gumiwang Kartasasmita, the offspring of New Order stalwarts, we now have Abdul Hakim Iskandar as the village empowerment minister, whose qualification was that he is the older brother of National Awakening Party (PKB) chairman Muhaimin Iskandar, himself a member of a prominent Nahdlatul Ulama family in East Java. No less questionable is Jokowi's pick for the attorney general position. For this powerful position Jokowi selected another obscure figure in ST Burhanudin, who is the younger brother of senior PDI-P politician TB Hasanuddin.

Nadiem Makarim and Erick Thohir certainly have impressive resumes that could prepare them for their respective jobs of education minister and state-owned enterprises minister, but it certainly helps that they come from prominent business families who are already familiar with how to operate in Jakarta's slippery corridors of power.

And while his first term Cabinet was dominated by Jakarta-centric figures, for his second term Jokowi did install regional figures but this time he picked those who represented powerful political dynasties. Agriculture Minister Syahrul Yasin Limpo is the patriarch of the Yasin Limpo family, a clan that accumulated great wealth during the New Order period and since 1998, members of the family managed to secure key political positions at the regency and provincial level in South Sulawesi.

A more eyebrow-raising choice is Women's Empowerment and Child Protection Minister I Gusti Ayu Bintang Darmawati, whose background is so obscure that the media recognized her as the wife of outgoing cooperatives and small and medium enterprises minister Anak Agung Gede Ngurah Puspayoga, himself the son of a prominent Balinese family with close ties to Megawati. Right now, probably an intern somewhere is writing her Wikipedia entry.

And then of course there's the elephant in the room, the crème de la crème of Jakarta's elite class and the ultimate scion of a political family, Prabowo Subianto.

The former Army general lost the election twice and is now being rewarded with one of the most powerful seats in the Cabinet.

But this is how elitism work. Trump bankrupted his casino and failed to pay his debt, but in 2016 he was elected president. And for all underdogs and country folks who voted for Jokowi this year, they have to swallow the bitter pill.