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Jakarta Post

In 2019, Jokowi keeps friends close, enemies closer

  • Karina M. Tehusijarana
    Karina M. Tehusijarana

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Tue, December 24, 2019   /   04:19 pm
In 2019, Jokowi keeps friends close, enemies closer President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo (JP/-)

Elections, rioting, student demonstrations, party machinations - 2019 was an eventful year for Indonesian politics.

Among the many developments of the past 12 months, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s steady consolidation of power may prove to be one of the most consequential.

In the eight months since he won the presidential election by a comfortable, if not overwhelming, margin, the former Jakarta governor has managed to bring his fiercest opponent into his fold while also strengthening his influence over the country’s oldest political party. He has also managed to place close allies in important military and police positions, while strengthening his ties with the country’s media establishment.

If, as prominent Indonesianist Benedict Anderson wrote in his 1972 essay The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture, “the most obvious sign of the man of Power is, quite consistently, his ability [...] to concentrate within himself apparently antagonistic opposites,” then Jokowi has proven himself to be very powerful indeed.

The President hinted at his planned approach in a cryptic video post on Twitter and Instagram in July, in which wayang character Gatotkaca appears to be offering help to a peasant, with the Javanese phrase "laman sira sekti, aja mateni” written above him, which roughly translates as: "even though you are powerful, do not knock down [others]."

Gajah Mada University sociologist Aris Arif Mundayat said the President’s post was meant to express that he was “not in opposition to anyone.”

“Using the saying ‘laman sira sekti, aja mateni,’ Jokowi is espousing a politics of togetherness,” Aris told The Jakarta Post at the time. “While in a democracy, normally the existence of opposition is seen as necessary, Jokowi is signaling that he does not want to oppose anyone.”

Aris' observation proved correct – shortly after his inauguration in October, Jokowi announced his new Cabinet, which included Gerindra Party chairman and losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto in the position of defense minister, effectively reducing the potential opposition in the House of Representatives by over a third.

Only three parties in the House are outside the government coalition and only one of those three – the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) – has definitively said that it would act as opposition to the Jokowi administration. The National Awakening Party (PAN) has remained ambivalent, while Democratic Party chairman Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has said that his party would “support the government”, although it would also criticize policies it deemed misguided.


This means that Jokowi currently has the support of nearly 75 percent of the House, a stark contrast to the legislative support the President had at the beginning of his first term in October 2014. His initial four-party coalition - which consisted of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the National Awakening Party (PKB), the NasDem Party and the Hanura Party – occupied only 207 House seats, or around 37 percent of the legislature.

The minority government coalition in the House made for a fraught first year for Jokowi, with very little legislation being passed and low approval ratings for the President.

Given his wide-ranging economic and bureaucratic reform agenda – with three omnibus bills on job creation, small-and-medium enterprises, and taxation on the horizon – not to mention his plans to move the capital to East Kalimantan, Jokowi has evidently no desire to repeat that experience.

"Jokowi has gone through a learning process and now knows what it takes to govern effectively," Center for Strategic and International Studies researcher Noory Okthariza told the Post.

But while on the surface the ruling coalition seems stronger than ever, an undercurrent of tension remains with Jokowi seemingly at odds with his own party, the PDI-P, regarding key issues such as the planned constitutional amendment.

While the party’s national congress declared that it was in favor of an amendment, the President recently voiced his objection to the idea. 

“It would be better if there was no [constitutional] amendment. Let us concentrate on external pressures that are difficult to handle,” Jokowi told the press at the State Palace earlier this month.

While the PDI-P has insisted that it wants an amendment that is limited to reinstating the now-defunct policy framework for long-term development plans (GBHN), the process opens the door to returning the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) to its pre-Reform Era status as the state's supreme body, thus diminishing the president’s authority.

Meanwhile, relations between NasDem Party chairman Surya Paloh and the President have seemingly soured, with NasDem threatening to leave the coalition shortly before the new Cabinet was announced in October. 

Surya has also made several appearances with Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan – Jokowi’s former minister turned political opponent – and has said that NasDem is open to nominating Anies for the presidency in the next elections in 2024.

Given the cracks in Jokowi’s coalition, the victory of Coordinating Economic Affairs Minister Airlangga Hartarto in the recent Golkar leadership race is widely regarded as a win for the President. 

Airlangga's victory came amid accusations of Palace interference in the leadership race, which both Jokowi and Airlangga have denied. Airlangga’s strongest contender, Bambang Soesatyo, bowed out of the race at the eleventh hour after a meeting with Coordinating Maritime Affairs Minister Luhut Pandjaitan, a senior Golkar politician and close adviser to Jokowi.

“Jokowi is aware that he is not the main policymaker in the PDI-P. This position makes it difficult for him to advance his interests. By tightening his grip on the Golkar Party, his position when dealing with [PDI-P chairwoman] Megawati will be more equal," Centre for Strategic and International Studies political analyst Arya Fernandes said.

Outside of the political parties, Jokowi has also managed to put loyalists in key positions in both the National Police and the Indonesian Military (TNI), while also maintaining close ties with the owners of much of the country’s media establishment. 


Insp. Gen. Listyo Sigit Prabowo, a former adjutant to the President, has recently been appointed as the chief detective to lead the police’s Criminal Investigation Department (Bareskrim), while Army chief of staff Gen. Andika Perkasa, a former head of the President’s security detail, has been touted to fill the newly revived deputy TNI commander position. 

Jokowi has also appointed four people to ministerial, deputy ministerial and presidential expert staff positions that have close ties to major media companies.

State-Owned Enterprises Minister Erick Thohir is the president director of PT Mahaka Media, which counts Islamic daily newspaper Republika, local television station JakTV and popular radio station GenFM among its holdings. Tourism Minister Wishnutama is the cofounder of NET TV, while his deputy minister Angela Tanoesoedibjo, is the daughter of MNC group patron Hary Tanoesoedibjo.

Putri Tanjung, one of Jokowi’s new millennial staffers, is the daughter of businessman Chairul Tanjung, who owns a slew of television and online news media.

Since his reelection, Jokowi's family members have also entered into the political arena, leading to accusations that the former Surakarta mayor is looking to build a political dynasty.

Jokowi's eldest son Gibran Rakabuming Raka has officially registered with the PDI-P to run in the 2020 Surakarta mayoral election in Central Java, causing a rift in the party, which had already nominated incumbent Deputy Mayor Achmad Purnomo.

Meanwhile, Jokowi's son-in-law Bobby Nasution has also registered with both the PDI-P and Golkar to run in the 2020 Medan mayoral race in North Sumatra.

Gibran, Bobby and Jokowi have all denied accusations of nepotism or dynastic politics, with the President saying that elections were "a competition, not an appointment."

While Jokowi has proven adept in strengthening his position, observers and activists have raised questions as to what his second term will bring, and questioned his commitment to democratic principles. 

“Since his first term, Jokowi has shown greater interest in economic development than democratic reform,” Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic State University political scientist Burhanuddin Muhtadi wrote in a recent article for the East Asia Forum Quarterly.

“The implications of this narrow understanding of reform could be dire, as democracy and civil rights may be forfeited in the name of political stability and economic development.”

Amnesty International Indonesia executive director Usman Hamid echoed Burhanuddin’s comments, saying that decisions such as appointing Prabowo to the Cabinet showed the rise of a “collusive oligarchy” that had benefited from many of Jokowi’s less popular policies such as the passing of the new Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) Law.  

“For the last 20 years, Indonesia’s elections have gone ahead without two major political interruptions – military coup or civil conflict,” Usman said in a recent discussion held by the Post. “The threat to Indonesia’s democracy comes from elected leaders who have no commitment to democracy.”