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Visionary or Cautious Reformer? Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s Two Years in Office

Indonesian President Joko Widodo gestures during an interview with Reuters at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta
Darren Whiteside—Reuters Indonesian President Joko Widodo gestures during an interview with Reuters at the presidential palace in Jakarta on Feb. 10, 2016

When President Widodo was inaugurated on Oct. 20 2014, there was widespread hope that his "can-do" approach would translate into bold decision making and wide-ranging reforms. Two years on, experts believe his reforms have not gone far enough

Two years ago, slum-born Joko “Jokowi” Widodo was elected Indonesia’s President, becoming the first leader elected outside of the country’s narrow political and military elite. The kindly Jakarta governor, with his pronounced Javanese accent and reputation for consulting with the poor before making policy decisions, became a vessel for progressive Indonesian hopes of building a prosperous and tolerant country.

But Jokowi came into office at a difficult time. Indonesia’s economy was struggling to overcome weak demand for its natural resources, the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) inspired radical Sunni Muslims worldwide, and annual forest fires demonstrated the challenge of forest protection. Complicating this, Prabowo Subianto, the conservative former military man Jokowi defeated in the election, threatened to maintain a coalition of political parties that would actively oppose the President’s political agenda. This forced Jokowi to lean on the oligarchs in his own political coalition, who in-not-so-subtle ways demonstrated their lack of respect for the upstart. In its first year, Jokowi’s administration careened from one preventable crisis to the next.

But that tough first year increasingly feels like a distant memory. The trend of Indonesia’s patronage-based national politics is for opposition political parties to attempt to cross over and join the government in order to receive key cabinet appointments with which to reward their followers. As Jokowi began learning the ropes, he was able to deftly exploit opposition power struggles to get these parties to join his side.

Two years since he was elected, Jokowi now presides over a vast political coalition. According to the most reliable polling he is a popular figure in Indonesia. In his first year he struggled to communicate to the public; now he has YouTube videos of himself arm-wrestling and joking with his son. He has made a bold new appointment for chief of the national police, Tito Karnavian — the former head of the national counterterrorism agency — which indicates he is no longer simply taking the orders of elites in his governing coalition. Jokowi has also released 12 economic reform packages aimed at easing investment into the country and doing away with troublesome and redundant regulations.

Read More: Why Indonesia, the World’s Biggest Muslim Democracy, Should Accept Its LGBT Citizens

But analysts are increasingly questioning whether his piecemeal stabs at reform are sufficient, especially at a time when unemployment is rising and the economy continues to grow below expectations. Perhaps more threateningly, a rising tide of intolerance, most recently directed against the country’s LGBT community is deeply damaging Indonesia’s reputation as a tolerant Muslim-majority democracy.

Among analysts, a narrative has emerged that depicts Jokowi as a tinkerer, rather than a visionary, content to make small-scale changes to problems instead of tackling the country’s systematic challenges head-on. Furthermore, the consensus is that Jokowi has no clear plan for how to protect minority groups. In certain cases, as his harsh decision to revive Indonesia’s death penalty for drug traffickers shows, Jokowi’s administration is making Indonesia’s human rights situation worse.

Reviving the economy

During his presidential campaign, Jokowi predicted the country would reach growth rates of 7%. However, in the first quarter of 2016, the economy couldn’t muster 5%. The culprit was weak demand for Indonesian commodities caused primarily by the slowdown of the Chinese economy. But there were other factors: Jokowi’s pledged major push to develop infrastructure was unrolled slowly, reducing government spending in his first year in office.

Moreover, Jokowi, who famously promised an audience of foreign investors that Indonesia was open for business, has not seen foreign investment rise substantially. Foreign direct investment has only increased modestly, at 4.5% (in dollar terms) during his two years in office. His promise of a one-stop shop for foreign investment, meant to ensure that foreign investors didn’t have to collect dozens of permits from different national and local agencies in order to, say, build a textile factory, has disappointed.

“It’s puzzling why it’s taken so long for him to put things in motion. He’s got great instincts and principles with regards to economic policy making, but he isn’t pursuing them energetically enough, aggressively enough, or deeply enough,” says Kevin O’Rourke, policy analyst and producer of Reformasi Weekly, a review of Indonesian politics.

Read More: Islamist Intolerance Poses a Growing Threat to Indonesia’s Minorities

Raising capital remains extremely difficult for all but the largest corporations, and analysts question whether Jokowi is actually interested in moving away from a model of state-directed growth. He’s done “an adequate but not a terrific job,” says Matthew Busch, an analyst and Ph.D. student at Melbourne University who researches on Indonesian economic history.

“He certainly hasn’t done enough to tackle structural issues that impact why the economy is so unfair to ordinary Indonesians and why Indonesians pay so much more for basic staples.”

President Jokowi ‘s tax amnesty, which encourages Indonesians to declare untaxed assets by offering very low tax rates, has succeeded in bringing in nearly $7.5 billion to the Indonesian treasury in the first phase, which ended on Sept. 30. While this represents a short-term windfall for the Indonesian government, it’s not clear whether the tax amnesty will succeed in repatriating significant assets to Indonesia or in paving the way for more effective tax collection, as the program is intended.

“The tax amnesty has certainly been a public-relations win for the administration, but its enduring impact depends on future questions, such as if the new information is effective for increasing tax compliance,” says Busch. Although the tax amnesty was intended to encourage Indonesians to repatriate assets held abroad, so far 95% of tax revenue collected came from assets held domestically.

Rising intolerance and deteriorating human rights

Jokowi came into office pledging to crack down on intolerant groups who took the law into their own hands by punishing minorities they disagreed with. Since becoming President, Jokowi has continued to speak out against intolerance in his country, including by endorsing “Islam Nusantara,” billed as Indonesia’s tolerant local Islamic tradition. But as TIME has previously noted, watchdog groups report that instances of Islamist violence and intolerant action rose 30% during the first full year of his presidency, compared with the previous year. Bonar Tigor Naipospos, the executive director of the Setara Institute, a human-rights watchdog group based in Jakarta, told TIME a few months ago that Jokowi “thinks improving the economy can solve all problems. He doesn’t have a sufficient understanding of human rights and how to protect minority groups.”

Read More: LGBT Rights in Indonesia Are Coming Under ‘Unprecedented Attack’

Nonetheless, Jokowi has repeatedly voiced his expectation that minority religions will be tolerated, and rights advocates generally see him as an ally. Last year, when churches were burned and closed down in Aceh Singkil, a regency in Shari‘a-abiding Aceh province, the central government dispatched teams to resolve local tensions.

“In a number of cases of intolerance and conflicts over identity, the statements and actions of the government have been quite thorough,” writes Alamsyah M. Djafar, head of programs at the Wahid Institute, an organization that promotes tolerance in Indonesia.

But the President’s apparent conviction that members of established minority faiths, like Christians, deserve protection does not carry over to other minorities like LGBT Indonesians. As TIME has reported, government ministers have unleashed a barrage of rhetorical attacks on Indonesia’s gay community. Indonesia, one of the only countries in the region never to have criminalized same-sex relations, now has legislators pledging to do just that. The nation’s Constitutional Court has commenced a review to determine if same-sex relations should be permitted in Indonesia. While Jokowi himself has not joined in the rhetoric, he has also not, until very recently, made statements in defense of LGBT Indonesians. His spokesperson, Johan Budi, has even said that all Indonesian citizens would be protected from violence, but there was no “room” in the country for an LGBT movement that tried to persuade straight Indonesians to “become like them.”

Read: Indonesia Is Asking Facebook and WhatsApp to Block Gay Emojis

Jokowi’s eagerness to accommodate even the most hard-line Islamist voices in parliament is damaging his human-rights record. Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch tells TIME, “Jokowi’s transactional politics might sacrifice his human-rights agenda.”

Since early on in his presidency Jokowi has spoken of drugs as a scourge in Indonesia. There is not much data to back this up. The President says that 40 to 50 young Indonesians die daily because of drug use. That information comes from a widely contested government study. Nevertheless, Jokowi revived Indonesia’s death penalty and, since taking office, and has executed 18 people. In July, Indonesia executed four convicted drug traffickers, in the government’s latest show of commitment to the issue.

Forest Protection

In October 2015, one year after Jokowi was inaugurated, huge swaths of his country went up in flames. Slash-and-burn forest-clearing techniques, compounded by an El Niño dry season, burned more than 2.6 million hectares of forest. Most devastating for the environment were the burning of peatlands containing ancient carbon stores. Erik Meijaard, a forest scientist with environmental group Borneo Futures, called the fires the “biggest man-made environmental disaster of the 21st century.” Over 500,000 Indonesians reported respiratory illnesses, as haze blanketed much of Southeast Asia. A study released last month suggested that the smog may have led to the deaths of more than 100,000 people in Southeast Asia, with the majority of cases in Indonesia. The question looming over the country one year later is whether the government’s newly implemented forestry policies will be sufficient to ensure that this dry season is not a repeat of the last one.

Forest Fire in Indonesia
Yenni Safana—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images An Indonesian military personnel spray water on forest burned area at Rimbo Panjang Village, in Indonesia’s Riau province, on Aug. 6, 2015

 

Meijaard was initially optimistic that Jokowi, who studied forestry in university, had successfully instituted policies that would lessen the likelihood of out-of-control forest fires. “What seemed to have happened was that Jokowi made it very clear to every head of district, every local head of army and police that if there were significant fires in their jurisdiction, they would be demoted or in some way punished. There was a clear message behind it.”

But despite these efforts there are increasing signs that fires are breaking out throughout western Borneo and parts of Sumatra. Indonesia’s meteorology agency released a statement on Aug. 27 that said there were “land fires over a vast area” in Riau, in eastern Sumatra. It will likely be a few weeks before the full extent of the burning is understood. Meijjard has since expressed concerns.

Read More: Watch Eerie Drone Footage of Indonesia’s Vast Forest Fires

Rezal Kusumaatmadja, environmentalist and COO of a major peatland restoration project, says in an email to TIME that the response to fires in the area of his forest conservation concession is much improved compared with last year. “What we have seen in the field, at least around our area, it that the police are actively working on the area. Now they are patrolling with our fire teams, whereas before they just sat and watched.”

South China Sea

When Jokowi took office, he promised to remake the country into a “global maritime fulcrum.” His signature foreign policy move was to destroy foreign fishing ships caught fishing in Indonesian waters, in a bid to broadcast his government’s toughness against those who would violate Indonesian sovereignty. But the past few months have made it clear that defending Indonesian sovereignty at sea will be much trickier than simply detonating the odd Vietnamese fishing vessel. China claims areas of the South China Sea near the Natuna islands that Indonesia considers its exclusive economic zone. Tensions came to a head in June, when Indonesian navy vessels fired warning shots at a fleet of Chinese ships fishing in waters claimed by Indonesia, injuring one fisherman. Jokowi, who is eager to maintain a strong trading relationship with China, is attempting a delicate balancing act. His administration has insisted that the waters near the Natuna islands are Indonesian while at the same time denying that Indonesia is taking any sides in other nation’s territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.

Read More: Indonesian President Jokowi Visits the Natuna Islands to Send a Strong Signal to China

This approach is becoming more difficult to maintain given China’s continued aggressiveness. Aaron Connelly, research fellow at the Lowy Institute, agrees that a multilateral response to Chinese interference would be more effective.

“I think Jokowi still believes he can strike a bilateral understanding with China because Indonesia is bigger and more important [than other Southeast Asian nations],” says Connelly. “In the long term, wouldn’t a regional consensus around China’s obligations to international law be more reliable?”

Counterterrorism

In January, Indonesian militants aligned with ISIS launched a bomb attack at a Starbucks café in Jakarta, killing four civilians. It marked the first major terrorist incident in Indonesia since 2009. Since then Indonesian counterterrorism forces have announced they have disrupted a number of attempted attacks, and in July, said they had killed the country’s most-wanted terrorist, Santoso, who led the East Indonesia Mujahidin (MIT). A few minor attacks have been conducted since, including a failed suicide bomb attack on a church in Medan, North Sumatra on Aug. 28, believed to be inspired by ISIS. The tempo of attempted terrorist attacks is rising in Indonesia, though militants tend to be poorly equipped and trained, and attacks have so far led to few civilian causalities. However, the nation’s security services are on high alert, with the risk that some of the 500-odd Indonesians who have joined ISIS in Syria will return to wreak havoc.

Read More: Indonesia’s Overcrowded Prisons Are a Breeding Ground for Islamic Extremism

Experts are concerned that Jokowi has no clear strategy for tackling terrorism. As with other areas of policy, Jokowi has handicapped his administration by making political appointments. Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, tells TIME, “Jokowi does not have a policy on counterterrorism, as is clear from two key security appointments: Tito Karnavian [chief of national police], knowledgeable and strategic; Wiranto [Coordinating Minister for Legal, Political and Security Affairs], no knowledge of or experience on the issue.”

Yohanes Sulaiman, a security analyst, expressed concern that deradicalization programs continued to be underfunded, with the administration relying too much on police actions to disrupt terrorism. “Frankly there’s no ‘Jokowi’s counterterror strategy.’ What this government has been doing is simply continuing what [the previous President] had been doing,” he says.

That’s a move that could prove dangerous, because the terrorist threats to Indonesia are ongoing, and jihadist recidivism is high.

When Jokowi took office two years ago there was widespread hope that the President’s “can-do” approach would translate into bold decision making and wide-ranging reforms. There was also worry that the President would fail to secure elite support. Two years in, Jokowi has successfully acquired that support, but at a major cost: there is little reform to be found, and Jokowi has yet to articulate a clear vision for what his administration intends to accomplish on a wide range of issues.

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