A revolution betrayed: The tragedy of Indonesia’s Jokowi

Once lauded as a promising democrat in Southeast Asia, Joko Widodo has recently allied with anti-democratic forces.

Joko Widodo
Indonesia's President Joko Widodo with his new running mate, Ma'ruf Amin, won a re-election in April 2019 [File: Reuters/Willy Kurniawan]

When Joko Widodo, affectionately known as “Jokowi”, pulled off a shocking victory in Jakarta’s 2012 gubernatorial race, many, especially the country’s youth and aspirational middle class, hoped for nothing short of total revolution. Soon, the charismatic leader was being hailed as Indonesia’s “Obama”, an icon of progressive reform in a deeply authoritarian region. 

Yet Jokowi’s meteoric rise to power and his re-election as president earlier this year has been nothing short of a colossal disappointment for advocates of liberal reform and democratisation.

To the consternation of even his most die-hard supporters, Jokowi has embraced hardline Islamists and members of the former dictatorial regime. And to make matters worse, he is sidelining political reform, including weakening anti-corruption agencies, in order to push through infrastructure development and please the country’s reactionary forces.

The Indonesian dream

Jokowi’s recent actions are even more startling when one looks at the circumstances of his ascent to power. A former progressive mayor hailing from the small town of Surakarta, Jokowi represented a clear and inspiring alternative to the Jakarta oligarchy, which has ruled the world’s largest archipelagic nation since its birth in the mid-20th century.

As governor of Indonesia’s mega-capital, Jokowi did not disappoint his supporters, who enthusiastically welcomed his hands-on, grass-roots-driven style of governance on a far larger scale.

Major infrastructure projects kicked in, while the poorest residents, cramped into some of the world’s largest slums, relished an accessible, compassionate leader willing to lend an ear to their most profound needs and grievances.

Barely two years into his governorship, Jokowi was elected president, becoming the country’s second directly elected president and, more crucially, the first from outside the Jakarta elite. Railing against bureaucratic red tape and corruption, he promised an effective and decisive style of leadership.

From the protection of small and medium enterprises during his mayoral stint in Surakarta to his large-scale infrastructure projects in Jakarta, Jokowi had an “exhibit A” to brandish during the presidential elections. He even promised to “fight to preserve human rights” as part of a broader “fight against injustice”.

Capitalising on his folksy, small-town background, Jokowi promised to speak for the orang kecil, the ordinary masses, with compelling authenticity. Even more encouragingly, Jokowi supported the bid of his longtime political partner, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as “Ahok”, to become the first Jakarta governor of Chinese descent and Christian faith in a deeply conservative Muslim nation.

Trouble in paradise

Jokowi’s 2014 election represented the vision of a diverse and democratic Indonesia, a desperately needed model for a region steeped in ethnic strife and authoritarian rule. Early in his presidency, however, he exhibited troubling signs to advocates of liberal reform.

But only months into office, he restored the death penalty, which had been suspended under his predecessor. Within six months of his election, as many as 14 people had been executed despite a massive international outcry.

Moreover, Jokowi seemingly endorsed extrajudicial killings against suspected drug dealers based on President Rodrigo Duterte’s scorched-earth drug war in the Philippines, which has killed thousands of people. In fact, Indonesia even awarded Duterte’s chief drug war implementer, former Philippine police chief Bato Dela Rosa, the prestigious Bintang Bhayangkara Utama (Medal of Honour), while Jokowi warmly welcomed the Filipino strongman during multiple visits to Jakarta.

The most troubling aspect of his early presidency, however, was Jokowi’s political abandonment of erstwhile ally, Ahok, who was convicted of blasphemy and jailed in 2017. Ahead of his re-election bid, the Indonesian president abandoned reformist candidates for the position of vice president in favour of hardline Islamist leader Ma’ruf Amin, who played a key role in Ahok’s controversial imprisonment on blasphemy charges.

Indonesia’s Duterte

Jokowi’s second stint in office, following a decisive victory in this year’s presidential election, has marked an even greater setback for political reform. In an attempt to strengthen his power base, Jokowi appointed no less than his chief rival and controversial former military commander Prabowo as his new defence minister. 

Notorious for his apocalyptic, fear-driven populism, and shameless embrace of “fake news”, Prabowo, who has praised the old days of “New Order” dictatorship, eerily resembles Duterte.

During his stint as a military commander in the 1990s, Prabowo was accused of orchestrating the abduction and torture of as many as 23 democracy activities, 13 of which are yet to be located. He has been banned from entry to the United States over his alleged crimes.

As defence minister, Prabowo will have significant say over the conduct of the country’s armed forces and their respect for human rights and basic liberties of citizens, especially in restive regions such as Papua.

Usman Hamid, Amnesty International’s Indonesia executive, has warned that Prabowo’s appointment “would be a dark day for human rights in this country”.

Jokowi, who has appointed a large number of former regime members of Indonesia’s late dictator Suharto into his cabinet, seems to have given the former commander free reign, stating, “I believe I don’t have to tell him about his job – he knows more than I do.”

The Indonesian president’s illiberal lurch has provoked massive student protests, with protesters not only worried about the introduction of draconian laws, but also Jokowi’s likely weakening of Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (KPK), the country’s highly-respected anti-corruption body, through legal reforms.

From Jokowi’s standpoint, anti-corruption agencies could slow down the pace of infrastructure development by placing greater scrutiny on big-ticket projects. In a developing world context, in which a few oligarchs with foreign partners like China dominate the business sector, major contracts may inevitably involve an element of corruption, this logic goes. In other words, Jokowi has seemingly embraced the age-old notion of “efficient corruption”, which presupposes that a degree of corruption is inevitable for rapid economic growth.     

The Indonesian president has been open to new legal revisions, which will weaken the KPK’s independence by, among other measures, restricting its investigative and prosecutions powers, including the search and seizure of assets derived from corruption and wiretapping suspects, and imposing an oversight board. 

Thus, eager to turbocharge infrastructure development, and intent on creating a grand ruling coalition with the established elite, Jokowi has emerged as arguably the greatest disappointment for democratic reform in Asia.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.