President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo's fiery speech in a recent meeting with members of his Cabinet, which was circulated on Sunday, appears to be a sign of his frustration at the lack of progress in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and a threat that he will reshuffle his ministerial team if no progress is made in the effort.
Presidential Chief of Staff Moeldoko said on Monday that prior to delivering the speech on June 18, in which he threatened to replace ministers who failed to deliver results in the COVID-19 fight and disband government agencies, President Jokowi had issued frequent warnings to Cabinet members whom he considered were not doing enough in dealing with the pandemic and its economic impacts.
"The President is concerned that his aides think that this is a normal situation. They [ministers] need to be reminded, and the last [warning] was the latest among many," Moeldoko told reporters on Monday.
Moeldoko said that among many issues that Jokowi was most concerned about were health care and the delivery of social aid.
“After we looked into it, there were issues that needed to be discussed, such as how to build synergy between the BPJS Kesehatan [Health Care and Social Security Agency], regional administrations and the Health Ministry, the issue of data collection on healthcare workers and complicated regulations,” Moeldoko said.
In a video released on Sunday by the President's press office, Jokowi delivered an uncharacteristically angry speech, saying that he would resort to a Cabinet-shakeup, disband government agencies or issue another government regulation in lieu of law (Perppu) if ministers failed to effectively deal with the pandemic and its economic impact. The video was a recording of a closed-doors Cabinet meeting on June 18, the first to be arranged during the pandemic with health protocols in place.
"I will take any extraordinary steps for our 267 million citizens. These could be disbanding institutions, or it could be a [Cabinet] reshuffle, I have thought of many options,” Jokowi said in the speech.
Jokowi urged members of his Cabinet to go the extra mile in the effort to accelerate the implementation of several policies, specifically mentioning the government’s social aid program as well as financial incentives for the country’s health workers, as he highlighted the slow disbursement of the government’s COVID-19 response budget.
“We have budgeted Rp 75 trillion [US$5.21 billion] but only 1.5 percent has been disbursed. All the money that’s supposed to be for the people is stuck there,” he said. “The much-anticipated social aid program should be disbursed quickly. […] This is an extraordinary [situation].”
Jokowi added that he would be willing to risk his "political reputation" to deal with the ramifications of policies taken during the pandemic.
This is not the first time Jokowi has used the threat of a reshuffle to spur his Cabinet into action. In February, during a private meeting with social media celebrities and influencers, the President said that he would replace Cabinet ministers who failed to adapt and deliver results.
Last week, during a visit to Surabaya, East Java, which has become the latest hot spot for COVID-19, Jokowi warned of a health and economic crisis as the pandemic continued to ravage the country. During a meeting with local officials there he set a two-week deadline for officials to contain the pandemic.
"I will closely monitor the situation after two weeks and see if there’s good progress on this,” Jokowi said.
Political analysts said that Jokowi's June 18 statement marked a shift in his approach to the worsening pandemic, which has so far killed more than 2,600 people and infected in excess of 50,000.
Executive director of local pollster KedaiKOPI Kunto Adi Wibowo said that with his recent statement Jokowi wanted officials in his government to have a more disciplined approach in tackling COVID-19, although the warning might well be too little, too late.
“This video should have been [released] in March. This is what we needed in early March,” Kunto said, referring to the first cluster of COVID-19 cases that the government announced at the time.
Researcher at the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Noory Okthariza said that although President Jokowi used his speech to test the waters of a possible reshuffle, he did want members of his Cabinet to drop their business-as-usual attitude in dealing with COVID-19.
“I think Jokowi wants to convey a message through the firm stance that he displayed. In the previous reshuffle, he allowed some Cabinet issues to be discussed by the public and members of his ruling coalition before finally deciding to reshuffle the Cabinet.”
Noory also questioned why it took so long for the President's team to make the speech public, which gave the impression he "had failed in his previous attempts to get his ministers to take COVID-19 more seriously.”
United Development Party (PPP) lawmaker Arsul Sani said Jokowi's criticism of his ministers was warranted as some Cabinet members had been ineffective in their work.
“Some members of the Cabinet communicate [their policies] with the public but do not coordinate with other ministers, resulting in different approaches to some issues, such as in the issue of quarantine, the relaxation of large-scale social restrictions [PSBB] and of foreign workers from China, among other matters,” Arsul said.
Democratic Party politician Ossy Dermawan, meanwhile, said that the timing of the video's release could indicate that it was only a publicity stunt. “Why was this [video] content released to the public now? It’s not surprising that many people think this is part of the President’s attempt to shift the blame or that it is only publicity stunt, but I don’t have the exact answer.”