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A Look at Indonesian President Joko Widodo's Efforts to Stamp Out Corruption

He went into office promising to modernize Indonesia. How has he fared in his first 15 months?

by Royce Kurmelovs
Nov 13 2015, 12:00am

Illustrations by Michael Hili

Joko Widodo, a.k.a. "Jokowi" made it big because he was an honest man in a landscape of cheats. He was supposed to be a man of the people who began in poverty and worked his way up from local-level politics to the national stage. He was expected to take on Jakarta, tear up red tape, and get shit done. Above all else, he was going to clean up corruption.

This was huge in a country of 249.9 million people used to watching the place be run like a cartel. Politics in Jakarta is a dirty business where officials make their wage in bribes and patronage networks decide who gets what job. Without the right friends in the right places, it's almost impossible to get anything done.

So when Jokowi was elected on 22 July with 53 percent of the vote, he became the first Indonesia president in a long time to come from outside the military and outside Jakarta. He was easygoing and mild-mannered. The guy even listened to heavy metal.

But his victory didn't come easily. The day after the election, Jokowi had to survive a constitutional challenge to his right to form a government. After that, his first serious move as leader came when he scrapped fuel subsidies as of January 1, 2015. Fuel subsidies may seem like a dull topic for most, but in Indonesia, it's the kind of thing that could cause a revolution. Prior to 2015 the Indonesian government was chewing through one fifth of its budget subsidizing fuel but past efforts to do the same ended in protests. It was largely seen as political suicide.

Not for Jokowi. He cut back on subsidies and freed up billions to spend on healthcare, education, and infrastructure spending. While the move was met by some protests in regional areas, and Jokowi's popularity dropped sharply, he was saved when world oil prices started to tank, cushioning many Indonesians from the sudden price rise in their petrol.

This was a brave first step welcomed by the business community and foreign investors, but what everyone was waiting for was the showdown between Jokowi and the old guard. Everyone knew Jokowi didn't stand a chance. His is a minority government ruling in a Coalition, but Indonesians still hoped for a new kind of leader who would make a stand. At best a political rebel, at worst a noble loser.

Budi Gunawan, the general appointed police chief by President Widodo, was immeditely subjected to corruption charges.

What they seem to have gotten is a sell-out. That much became clear when Jokowi appointed Budi Gunawan as national police chief in January to appease the country's political elite. Budi was a three-star general and by most accounts a suspiciously wealthy man. Those suspicions were enough to attract the attention of the Corruption Eradication Committee (KPK) who immediately named Budi as a suspect in a bribery investigation.

It's fair to argue that the KPK is Indonesia's only institution trusted by the people. Ordinary Indonesians have little love for the police, which is an institution that still performs a " two finger" virginity test on its female members. Comparatively the KPK seem like a beacon of hope, with enough grunt to bring down cabinet members, police generals, and lawmakers. So this is why when the KPK called out Budi, the police came for it with knives.

Jokowi dropped Budi in February and the police responded over the next few months by charging members of the KPK with a series of largely invented offenses, forcing them to follow custom and step aside. Sadly those who have replaced the fallen officials are not considered crusaders for public justice.

"This was one institution Indonesians had a lot of trust in," said Aaron Connelly from the Lowy Institute. "And the police basically destroyed it as it existed."

This was only the start. In April, Jokowi was forced to sit by and watch as members of his own party tore him to pieces. Party matriarch Megawati Soekarnoputri raged against Jokowi during a fiery speech at a party conference that was then met with thunderous applause. For all the promises Jokowi made about making a fresh start, this moment showed the battle ahead.

It also happened to coincide with the execution of drug smugglers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran who were anchored to a post in a jungle and shot. Australia reacted with fury, as did the Brazilian, French, Dutch, and Nigerian governments when their citizens had been executed. At this time Jokowi was at the lowest point in his first year. He's been weakened and needed to show strength, which meant upholding the rule of law even if it upset foreign powers.

The first ten months in office saw the Indonesian parliament only pass three laws. Key infrastructure projects are also yet to begin.

By August, Jokowi was looking for allies to balance the growing willingness of the police to challenge his authority, so he started buddying up to the Indonesian army. It was a logical political move given the rivalry between the institutions, but somewhat problematic in a country that has only elected two civilian leaders ever, Jokowi being one of them. This is why images of Jokowi in khakis hanging out with generals during a military training exercise in July were enough to make some Indonesia watchers twitchy.

To make matters worse, the Chinese stock market's fiery crash in mid-June and the grinding onset of El Nino have sent Indonesia's economy into a slide. A chance at dealing with this lies in Jokowi's apparent plans to make Indonesia a "maritime nexus" by building ports and shipping infrastructure across the archipelago. The basic concept is the same as building roads in land-based countries to connect distinct peoples and bind them to a national identity, opening up economic opportunities and curbing social unrest. But then the first ten months in office saw the Indonesian parliament only pass three laws. Key infrastructure projects are also yet to begin.

Jokowi has now moved into his second year without realizing many of the changes he promised. In spite of this there's a theory things may get better from here on. As proof some commentators cite a relatively recent cabinet reshuffle and the appointment of an anti-corruption campaigner to Chief of Staff. Jokowi was only just finding his feet, the theory goes, and now he has a grasp of the political system, maybe things will be different. Maybe he still has some fight in him. Maybe the man they sent to live in Merdeka Palace hasn't been lost to the streets of Jakarta.

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