An orchestrated and theatrical meeting between President Joko Widodo and losing opposition candidate Prabowo Subianto in a suburban railway car signals both a political reconciliation and an end to the latter’s marriage of convenience with conservative Islamists.
In their first public meeting since the April 17 presidential election, the two prominent commuters talked privately in the closed carriage, before riding the new Mass Rail Transit (MRT) line – one of the achievements of Widodo’s first term – to brunch at a downtown mall.
It was always going to come to this in the end. Not only is there grudging respect between the two men, but Prabowo’s claims of massive vote fraud in the election were never legally convincing – and neither was his position as a champion of the religious right.
While onlookers cheered the long-planned get-together, the president’s critics weren’t impressed, with a spokesman for the so-called 212 Movement accusing Prabowo of betraying the Muslim faithful and saying the Islamist coalition had cut off ties to the retired general.
They may have more to complain about down the road as the government and the leaderships of two mass Muslim organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, present a united front in trying to steer the country back on a more tolerant path.
Prabowo and the elections served as a convenient rallying point for the 212 Movement and hardline groups like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), but they will no doubt find other ways to continue their struggle despite Widodo’s insistence that Indonesia remains a nation of moderation.
It appears unlikely Prabowo’s Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) will seek to follow his erstwhile allies, the Democrat and National Mandate (PAN) parties, into the ruling coalition, leaving Gerindra and the Sharia-based Justice and Prosperity (PKS) in the parliamentary opposition.
Although currently a non-party member, Prabowo’s running mate, Sandiaga Uno, said this week that he prefers to be part of a “critical, credible and constructive” opposition, a position several Gerindra members have publicly supported as well.
For the 50-year-old entrepreneur, a credible candidate for the 2024 presidential election, staying in the opposition may also be a better way of building a public profile over the next five years than being tied to someone else’s policies.
Saying he has nothing to lose in his second and final term, Widodo indicated in a recent interview and a keynote public speech that he will continue to focus on infrastructure development and prioritize human resource development in what he called the “key to Indonesia’s future.”
Improving the education system will be a major challenge, perhaps the biggest of his presidency, given the need to retrain teachers and, more importantly, change the mindset of civil servants who have so far shown stubborn resistance to reform.
The human resource program will also address malnutrition and stunted growth among 37% of Indonesian children under five years, and an infant mortality rate that sits at 22.7 deaths to 1,000 live births, an indicator of poor grassroots health care.
In a shift in emphasis, the president’s infrastructure agenda will be aimed at building connections between major infrastructure projects and economic growth centers, including industrial estates, special economic zones, tourist destinations and productive farmland.
Last week, the government announced plans to build a seven-kilometer, US$280 million bridge between Batam and Bintan islands, south of Singapore; Batam, the country’s only free trade zone, is being promoted as a site for investors looking to move their factories out of China amid the Sino-US trade war.
The next five years are also expected to see the completion of the Chinese-funded Jakarta-Bandung fast-railway, Indonesia’s first Belt and Road project, which now appears to have overcome land acquisition issues, and the long-delayed Trans-Sumatra and Trans-Papua highways.
In an interview with Bloomberg, Widodo said he will make an early start to reform the country’s labor laws, which have proven a significant barrier to the foreign investment needed to strengthen the export-orientated manufacturing sector.
While no-one is saying so, he is trying to undo the legislation then-president and now ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) leader Megawati Sukarnoputri pushed through in 2003, in her unsuccessful effort to win re-election the following year.
Generous in the extreme, it provides few links between a higher minimum wage and productivity and makes hiring and firing difficult, with employers forced to cough up severance pay equal to six months for a worker who has been with a company for five years.
When previous president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono sought to initiate changes to the 2003 law, he quickly backed off after unions threatened mass street demonstrations — the one thing Yudhoyono seemed to fear above all during his two-term presidency.
The minimum monthly wage in Jakarta and surrounding West Java is the equivalent of $257, compared to a maximum $180 in Vietnam, its main competitor for foreign investment with a labor force that is regarded as far more productive.
Widodo’s more immediate task will be to form a new 35-member Cabinet, striking a balance between his announced preference for younger and more professional ministers and the political need to satisfy PDI-P and the other four coalition parties.
The most significant changes are likely to be in his economic team, with ageing Economic Coordinating Minister Darmin Nasution, State Enterprise Minister Rino Soemarno and Mines and Energy Minister Ignasius Jonan all reportedly facing the axe as the president seeks to make a fast start to his second term following his October 20 inauguration.