Jokowi’s coming presidency: a cautionary note

Squatters on Pluit Dam were relocated and their homes demolished to make way for a new green space. Many praised Jokowi, but others noted that some residents continued to resist relocation.

Squatters on Pluit Dam were relocated and their homes demolished to make way for a new green space. Many praised Jokowi, but others noted that some residents continued to resist relocation.

Jokowi’s personal vision of what ails Indonesia and how it can be cured may be flawed, warns David Henley.

The close-run victory of Joko Widodo (Jokowi) over Prabowo Subianto in the Indonesian presidential election of 9 July has been rightly welcomed by foreign observers and liberal Indonesian political commentators alike. In Jokowi, after all, Indonesians will have a president who embodies a new direction, a break with the past. Jokowi represents honesty, transparency, modesty, rationality, and the common touch.

His defeated rival Prabowo, in grim contrast, represents chauvinistic nationalism, superficial pomp, and brutal machismo, appealing in the most sinister ways to nostalgia for the strong leaders of the past. Jokowi’s victory confirms the vitality of Indonesia’s democracy, as well as reassuring foreign allies and making the national struggle against corruption and money politics a less hopeless one.

But amid the triumph – and the relief, given Jokowi’s rather lacklustre campaign and the consequent narrowness of his victory – it is important to guard against unrealistic expectations regarding what Jokowi is likely to achieve as president.

Other writers on this blog have noted the discrepancy between his promise to bring a fresh broom to the corridors of power, and the staleness of the party he officially represents, Megawati’s PDIP, which is rife with old-fashioned patronage politics.It is clear too that once in office, Jokowi will face strong opposition and be forced to make uncomfortable compromises. These circumstances alone already make it likely that Jokowi’s presidency will disappoint many of those who supported him.

Beyond this inevitable process of compromise and disillusionment, however, there are also worrying signs that Jokowi’s personal vision of what ails Indonesia, and how it can be cured, may be in some ways flawed.

Jokowi’s vision of the future is in all senses of the word a bourgeois vision, one shaped by his experience as an entrepreneur and an upwardly mobile member of Indonesia’s growing middle class. The Indonesia of his aspirations is a country that is modern, fair, orderly, and clean. Modern, in the sense of being educated, technologically sophisticated, and comparable in these and other respects with already developed countries. Fair, in the sense of offering equality of rights and opportunities to all its citizens. Orderly, in the sense of being governed by clear, predictable laws and rules. And clean, both in the figurative sense of freedom from corruption, and in the literal sense of freedom from dirt and clutter.

This last point is worth paying particular attention to. As mayor of Surakarta and later as governor of Jakarta, perhaps Jokowi’s greatest single preoccupation has been the task of shifting informal traders from the streets and pavements of the city to new locations in designated markets, where they will obstruct neither the traffic nor the view.

This kind of approach to city planning is nothing new in Indonesia. In the 1970s Jakarta governor Ali Sadikin, still well remembered today among middle-class Jakartans, presided over a draconian city-wide clean up operation which included the forcible confiscation of thousands of becak, symbols of the capital’s poverty and backwardness.

Jokowi’s methods are more humane, but his intention is in part the same: to get rid of an eyesore that offends the sensibilities of well-off city-dwellers, as well as slows down their cars. Jokowi is no doubt sincere in believing that the resulting improvement in environmental quality and traffic efficiency will create a win-win situation from which the poor as well as the rich will benefit. But in practice it is not very likely that the interests of poor street traders will be served by moving them out of the view of their potential customers. The results of Jokowi’s original vendor relocation program in Surakarta, accordingly, were more mixed than the fame of the program might suggest. Some of his subsequent efforts in Jakarta have been downright failures, with hundreds of traders abandoning their newly allocated market kiosks and returning to the streets as soon as they thought it was safe to do so.

Jokowi’s development vision, in short, has not in the past been a pro-poor vision; it has not put the interests of the poor, which lie in maximizing their chances of selling whatever it is they can sell, over those of the rich, who are often keen to push the poor out of sight and mind.

Jokowi is reported to believe that ‘the only thing that can break the chains of poverty is education’. In the ‘Vision, Mission and Program of Action’ document issued in support of his presidential election campaign, education, along with science and innovation, takes pride of place in his strategy for economic development.

This is in line with existing national policy, and with an extraordinary constitutional amendment of 2002 which built into the national constitution itself the stipulation that at least one fifth of all government expenditure must always be spent on education.

The new national obsession with knowledge reflects a conviction among Indonesian elites that the time when development was a mundane matter of fertilizer, roads, and health care for the poor are long past. Indonesia is now a middle-income country, and what it needs in order to make the final sprint to fully developed status is cleverer and more highly trained engineers, IT experts, university professors, and creative sector professionals. Education, many middle-class Indonesians feel, has served them well in their quest for higher income and status as individuals and families; surely, then, it will also serve the nation well in its collective quest for the same things.

Unfortunately, however, the fact that an educated individual enjoys an advantage in a competitive job market does not mean that educating a whole nation will necessarily make it more prosperous – at least, not when the starting point is a very low level of economic development.

African elites have always been highly concerned with education, which consequently is the field in which the development indices of African countries have always lagged least far behind their Asian counterparts. But this has not helped African countries to develop economically. And in terms of its place on the ladder of economic development, Indonesia today is still much closer to Africa than its leaders may care to admit. In 2011, 43 percent of the Indonesian population still lived on an income equivalent to less two dollars per day – a poverty rate almost as high as that of Sudan, nearly twice as high as Sri Lanka’s, and nearly ten times higher than Mexico’s.

Comparisons with Indonesia’s Southeast Asian neighbours are even more sobering: in Thailand, people living on less than two dollars a day make up just four per cent of the population, and in Malaysia less than two percent. Malaysia and Thailand are countries where the question of the ‘middle-income trap’ and how to surmount it is a real one. Indonesia, where almost two thirds of the workforce still consists of self-employed peasant farmers and informal sector traders, is not.

Education and the beautification of the urban landscape are not, of course, the only items on Jokowi’s agenda, nor even on his economic agenda. But the emphasis which he places on them – rather than on, say, agricultural subsidies, health clinics, road maintenance, or microfinance – does not bode well for those very many Indonesians who will never have a white-collar job, and who have more important things to worry about than untidy streets.

Prabowo’s carefully, if cynically, developed pro-poor economic program helped him come surprisingly close to snatching victory from Jokowi, against all odds, in the presidential election. Let us hope that Jokowi will remember that, and always bear in mind that the interests of the modernising middle classes are not necessarily those of the hundred million Indonesians still living on less than two dollars a day.
David Henley is Professor of Contemporary Indonesia Studies at Leiden University.