Indonesia President Joko Widodo salutes during a ceremony to mark Independence Day at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta, August 17, 2017 Photo: Antara Foto via Reuters/Puspa Perwitasari
Indonesia President Joko Widodo salutes during a ceremony to mark Independence Day at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta, August 17, 2017 Photo: Twitter

With his popularity steadily rising, an unusual phenomenon in the middle of a presidential term and with a worryingly stagnant economy, little now appears to stand in the way of Indonesia’s everyman leader Joko Widodo from winning a second term at the 2019 election.

President Widodo’s approval rating stands at 68.3% in the latest Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) poll, despite policies that disturb the business community and point the country in the direction of more state and bureaucratic control.

More important, rival opposition leader Prabowo Subianto finds himself losing ground and now without the support of media tycoon Hary Tanoesoedibjo, who was expected to contribute some of the big bucks to Prabowo’s repeat bid for the presidency.

Widodo pursues a brand of populist politics which notably does not rely on good governance, sound planning or an understanding of the outside world. Instead, it rests on what it takes for him to survive and to keep a generally compliant citizenry on his side.

A former senior government official says it is a formula that is working given the effectiveness of the president’s social media team and the fact that he seems to be facing few serious challenges to his leadership and his chances of re-election.

“What he knows now is that he is the president,” says the same official, pointing to Widodo’s early background as a hometown mayor. “It is typical of someone going about managing power when he has never had power before. He loves power and he plays it well.”

The CSIS poll, released on September 12, shows Widodo holding virtually the same approval rating as he did in a similar survey last year, and well ahead of the 50.6% recorded in the second year of his presidency in 2015.

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is greeted by Indonesian migrant workers during a trip this year to Hong Kong. Photo: Reuters/Bobby Yip

With his dissatisfaction rating down to an all-time low of 31.5%, the survey has Widodo gaining 51.9% of the national vote if an election was held today, while Prabowo’s electability slipped to 25.8% from 28% in 2015.

A poll taken last June by the respected Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting (SMRC) saw Widodo winning with 53.7% of the vote, comfortably ahead of Prabowo at 32.7%. Two other surveys in past months have a similar gap between the two leading players.

An ethnic Javanese to the core, Widodo continues to play things close to his chest, aware that the palace leaks like the proverbial sieve and clearly reluctant to put his trust in anyone except a small coterie of advisers from his hometown of Solo.

One example of that has been a long-rumored Cabinet reshuffle, thought to involve several key figures in his administration, which was to have taken place in early August.

The president even discussed the timing with his aides, but not the changes he had in mind. Now he seems to have put it on hold, though one senior government source told Asia Times this week it was still “imminent.”

The retired official and other experienced observers believe Widodo sees the government’s current infrastructure program as the way to secure his place in history and something he can continue to build on if he wins a second term.

Under construction simultaneously, Jakarta’s new mass rail transit (MRT), Light Rail Transit (LRT) and a host of other projects may now be causing traffic chaos across the capital, but they are all timed to be in operation before the 2019 election.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (C) speaks during a visit to a Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) project in Jakarta on February 23, 2017. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry

The president leans heavily on his ministers to deliver, which may explain why Energy and Resources Minister Ignasius Jonan and Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati declared victory in contract negotiations with US mining giant Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold before any of the most contentious issues had been resolved.

Public relations are a big part of the president’s arsenal. His publicity team is led by former cabinet secretary Adi Widjajanto, a reputed cyber expert, and information specialist Sony Subrata, the head of a marketing and advertising group.

Well-placed sources say universities are under instructions from the palace to conduct as many panel discussions and seminars as they can with students and community figures, all aimed at casting the president in a positive light with a younger generation of voters.

They are doing something right. The CSIS poll shows 70.9% of respondents think development conditions are 70.9% better in 2017 than they were five years ago in the middle of predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s second term.

Widodo’s path to re-election appears to have become a lot smoother since Tanoesoedibjo publicly switched his support to Widodo, albeit in the face of two legal cases being held over his head by the Attorney-General’s Office.

Given his ethnic Chinese background, the tycoon’s ambitions to become a national political player have been a puzzle, particularly after the downfall of Jakarta governor Basuki Purnama earlier this year on politicized blasphemy charges, which according to some he had a hand in.

Chief Executive of Indonesia’s MNC Group Hary Tanoesoedibjo at the Indonesia Stock Exchange (IDX) in Jakarta, Indonesia, February 3, 2017. Reuters/Beawiharta

If finance minister Indrawati still has the Freeport hot potato to contend with in the months ahead, she has a much bigger problem trying to pump prime an economy that remains stuck at around 5% growth.

That may be good enough for many countries, but not for Indonesia. If the government is unable to boost sluggish investment and provide more employment, the country is in danger of being mired in a middle-income trap.

Surprisingly, with little progress being made in reducing poverty or growing social inequality, 56.9% of the respondents in the latest CSIS poll said they were satisfied with the economy, up from 30% in 2015 and 46.8 % last year.

But if conservative Islamic influences were once perceived to be a threat to Widodo’s re-election — and may still be if he makes a campaign misstep — most analysts now believe a further slowdown in the economy could be the greater danger.

Widodo’s apparent instructions to maintain government spending, much of it for cherished infrastructure projects, means the 2017 budget deficit will come dangerously close to the 3% limit allowed under the constitution.

On a macro level, serious concern rests with an anticipated short-fall in revenues, largely because of lower commodity prices and the failure of a series of deregulation packages to attract the foreign investment needed to boost higher-value manufacturing.

A woman holds behind her back a stack of Indonesian rupiah banknotes. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

There is also little evidence so far to show that the nine-month tax amnesty has achieved its purpose of broadening the tax base. Indeed, some businesses complain that with tax receipts reaching only 32% of the 2017 target by June, the taxman has returned to his old practice of hunting in the zoo.

Economists and businessmen say while fiscal policies are run well with the funds available, the actual economy is not. Everything that is being done, they say, amounts to a major reversal of the reforms of the early 1990s and a return to tighter state control.

Sometimes the government has gone too far. The Mines and Energy Ministry was recently forced to scrap a fresh regulation which would have further expanded the scope of its intrusion into the internal affairs of companies under its purview.

Even domestic consumption, the economy’s main driver, appears to have softened. Although spending varies according to individual sectors, economists say the bottom 40% of the population has seen a significant fall in real income.

The purchasing power of middle to upper income consumers has remained relatively stable, but Indonesians have been avoiding major purchases because of ongoing business uncertainty and a fear of the taxman’s knock.

Tellingly, while many professed to being happy with the economy, 62% of the CSIS respondents thought family economic conditions to be either unchanged or worse off. That would have brought a frown to Widodo’s face.

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