Jokowi may look good in batik, but he’s not cut-out for office, writes Duncan Graham. That’s because the Indonesian president’s shiny promise of reform has lost all its lustre, and he’s not tainted enough to function effectively in the country’s politics.
The always dapper Indonesian President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo is a splendid advocate for batik. Most days he wears a new design; whatever the colour or pattern the traditional shirts dazzle on his slim athletic frame.
His plump PDIP (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle) boss and former president Megawati Soekarnoputri, who famously dismissed him as ‘a party official’, once remarked that he couldn’t be a politician because he wasn’t sufficiently portly. She might have added ‘Machiavellian’.
If Jokowi wasn’t running the world’s third largest democracy he could grace a catwalk — for models are supposed to be seen, not heard.
Unfortunately being the seventh president of the Republic requires him to give speeches. These neither arouse nor inspire – they anesthetise. The pause, so important in oratory and mastered by Megawati’s father, Indonesia’s first president Sukarno, becomes an embarrassment with the reserved Javanese. Has Jokowi lost his way, his notes or both?
It’s not the only disenchantment with the man who seized the top job in the 2014 direct election by a narrow margin. He won not so much for what he was, but what he wasn’t – a member of the corrupt oligarchy that’s run the nation of 250 million for so long and so badly.
Unreal expectations were also projected onto the former Governor of Jakarta, considered a friend of the wong cilik (ordinary folk) by taking walkabouts (blusukan) to hear the word on the street.
The illogical leap followed that he’d be a Lee Kuan Yew scourge of corruptors and a compassionate Nelson Mandela on human rights and social issues. A reformer, though not a liberal; the term carries negative baggage, particularly with Muslims.
These hopes have been shredded with Jokowi’s failure to wield a big stick against the rent-seekers and his flawed reasoning for executing drug traffickers.
Economically he’s plin-plan — one minute a protectionist, the next a free trader; anti West, then welcoming foreign investors.
His politically savvy supporters aware of the disappointments have been involved in makeovers partly led by Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi. Unfortunately they’ve compounded the problem.
Retno is the first woman to hold the position and a surprise pick. Jakarta scuttlebutt claims her credentials include a close relationship with Megawati.
The former Ambassador to the Netherlands doesn’t have the intellectual firepower of her predecessor Dr Marty Natalegawa. This is obvious from attempts to bolster Jokowi’s credentials as an international statesman when all evidence indicates his policy priorities and personal interests are domestic.
To counter this image Retno took letters urging peace from Jokowi to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz.
No request had been made for Indonesia to broker a deal. Unsurprisingly nothing came from the trip – Indonesia, like Saudi Arabia, is a Sunni Muslim nation that trashes Shia – the majority faith in Iran.
On her return Retno, who presumably hatched the idea, made much of the 20,000 kilometres travelled on her ‘diplomacy marathon’ but nothing on the results:
We in the Islamic world … need to ensure that the region where most of the Muslim population resides, the Middle East, is peaceful, stable and prosperous, and continue to voice Islam as rakhmatan lil alamin (a blessing to the universe).
The next stage in the attempted transformation came during February’s trip to the US-ASEAN Summit where it seems the President said little and achieved less.
‘Jokowi conveys words of wisdom’ said one headline over a story about a courtesy call to Choummaly Sayasone of Laos. On the troubled country becoming chair of ASEAN Jokowi said, “I am sure the chairmanship will lead ASEAN to be better and more successful.”
If Jokowi thinks the octogenarian former general who has been running the People’s Revolutionary Party in his Marxist-Leninist state for the past decade can put pep and purpose into the 39-year-old ASEAN then the Indonesian is letting diplomatic niceties eclipse reality.
While Jokowi was heading to California, Indonesia’s TV One (a station owned by a conglomerate headed by Aburizal Bakrie, a strong opponent of Jokowi during the 2014 election) telecast an ‘exclusive’ interview with the President.
This turned out to be a brief love-in with lawyer and media executive Karni Ilyas heavily buttressed with thumpty-thump music and fast-edited clips of the President looking decisive.
Jokowi claimed problems of infrastructure were holding back the nation, but failed to explain how the roads will be rapidly broadened and lengthened before gridlock cripples the economy. The mounting frenzy against LGBTI groups and ‘deviant’, sects of Islam didn’t get a look in.
Jokowi comes across as a nice one-on-one guy, not the tangiest spice on the menu but the sort householders might elect as their RT (Rukun Tetangga) neighbourhood chief. He’d sort out stray cat and rubbish problems without snarling or taking sides; there’d be no suggestions he’d trouser their donations for paving the footpath. Nor would he initiate anything.
The wong cilik still seem to like him as his former opponents are in more disarray than the US Republicans. However it would be naïve to think no plots exist in a country where conspiracies go with the rice.
The real power is muttered to be the tough-talking US-trained former four-star General Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, Chief of Staff of the President’s Executive Office, whose credentials include a past business partnership with Jokowi.
Despite his military background Luhut dresses plainly. In batik he looks scruffy – so little chance of promotion – particular as he’s reported to be much disliked by Megawati.
So for the meantime Jokowi looks svelte and safe – provided he stays home and stops trying to be someone else.
Australian journalist and author Duncan Graham lives in East Java and writes for the Indonesian media.