Jokowi’s Presidency: Domestic Challenges and Foreign Policy Initiatives


While it is still early to decipher the exact domestic and foreign policies that Indonesia’s president-elect Joko Widodo will pursue, it is likely that he will face his toughest challenge on the domestic front and will continue to contribute positively towards Indonesia’s emergence as a middle power, believes Dr Mohamed Nawab Bin Mohamed Osman

“With humility, we ask the go back to a united Indonesia”. These words from Indonesian president-elect, Joko Widodo (better known as Jokowi) reflected clearly a worry about how divided Indonesian society has become in a presidential race which was the closest since the country’s transformation into a democratic state after three decades of authoritarian rule.

During the campaign, his opponent, former army general, Prabowo Subianto accused him of being a weak leader devoid of any serious policy plans. Nonetheless, the euphoria over Jokowi’s victory has obfuscated some real challenges that the new president will encounter in the next four years, both in the realm of domestic and international relations. While some analysts have argued that Jokowi’s lack of experience in the foreign policy realm will be his Achilles Heel, a proper observation of the Indonesian political landscape suggests that the his real challenge will be in the domestic front. Jokowi has much more to do on this front due to the dismal performance of current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. On the other hand, Jokowi will inherit a well-established foreign policy that Yudhoyono has capably executed.

The Jokowi Euphoria

Jokowi’s rise in the complex Indonesian political landscape has been both meteoric and remarkable. Jokowi comes from outside the Jakarta power structure and elites. He does not hail from an elite family, does not have a military background and is known for his grassroot style of politics. For many Javanese who continue to subscribe to legends, Jokowi is reminiscent of ‘Ratu Adil’ or Just Prince, a saviour figure often referred to in Javanese folklore that constantly peppers Indonesia’s political history. The Ratu Adil prophesy predicted that the said prince would be relatively poor and unknown, as Jokowi was. Jokowi’s success as governor of Surakarta (the third largest city in Indonesia) during which he transformed the city known for high levels of violence and economic problems into an economic powerhouse, convinced many Indonesians that a figure like Jokowi is necessary to revitalise Indonesian politics and economy. Minority groups in Indonesia are hopeful that Jokowi will repeal all laws that are in place to restrict and discriminate against religious minorities. Many foreign investors have also placed their bets on Jokowi, convinced that he will initiate the opening up of the Indonesian economy and institutionalise much needed economic and political reforms.

Reforming Indonesia: Prospects and Challenges

It is clear from the manifesto that Jokowi’s team put forth during the campaign period that he seeks to repeat his successes in Surakarta and Jakarta. He is likely to introduce a new style of governance, including limiting corruption and institutionalising government transparency. Jokowi will also undertake major fiscal reforms and liberalise the Indonesian economy as spelt out in the manifesto. The bigger difficulty for the new administration is to abolish laws that have been used by extremist Muslim groups to justify crimes and harassment against individuals who are not a part of the Shafie-Sunni majority. Already during the campaign period, Jokowi had to deal with a black campaign by his political opponents portraying him as a Chinese and Christian bent on limiting the rights enjoyed by Muslims in Indonesia. As such, any attempt to rein in these groups would be deemed as an attack on Islam itself. It is, thus, too early to assume that Indonesia’s declining human rights situation will necessarily improve under Jokowi.

More importantly, old political and business elites in the country remain dominant. Jokowi is already faced with a parliament that is far from friendly. More than 60 percent of seats in the current parliament are controlled by parties aligned to his opponent, Prabowo. All the parties that supported Prabowo agreed that they would maintain a coalition for at least five years, regardless of whether he won. In reality, there are already signs that some of these parties might switch sides. Nonetheless, if Prabowo can hold onto at least a majority of parties in his coalition, then he could remain a serious political threat. One of the most serious problems encountered by outgoing President Yudhoyono has been an obstructionist parliament that has hampered his plans for reforms.

Most importantly, Jokowi was fielded by the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) led by former Indonesian president, Megawati Soekarnoputri. It was well-known that Megawati had grudgingly nominated Jokowi as the party’s presidential candidate. She had preferred her daughter Puan Maharani, but had to relent to political pressures from the PDI-P cadres to nominate Jokowi. Jokowi himself has been deferential and Megawati has insisted in a public remark that the president-elect is first a party worker who must tend to the party’s needs first. It is, thus, feared by some that Jokowi will be a puppet to Megawati. Jokowi’s cabinet composition will be an indication as to how influential Megawati will be in this new power structure.

Indonesia’s Rise as a Middle Power: Implications for Asia-Pacific

One of the key blind spots of Jokowi’s campaign was foreign policy. Jokowi has no foreign policy experience, which was evident when he declared during the third presidential debate that Indonesia did not have a direct interest in the South China Sea marine disputes and did not have problems with China. However, this does not mean that Jokowi does not have an eye on foreign policy. A number of individuals in his campaign team are experts in the realm of international relations. A case in point is Rizal Sukma, director of the Centre for Security and International Studies (CSIS), and a close confidante of Jokowi, who is a respected international relations expert and has been actively involved in Track 2 diplomacy within the Asia-Pacific region.

Despite these problems, Jokowi will have a headstart due to the excellent legacy left behind in the foreign policy realm by Yudhoyono’s administration. There are at least four key pillars to which Jokowi’s foreign policy will have to adhere. First, Indonesia will continue to play a key role in regional organisations like the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN). Jokowi has indicated his desire to strengthen relations with other ASEAN countries. Second, Indonesia is likely to strengthen its global status through diplomacy. He pledged to do so by playing an active role in institutions like the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, and the United Nations. Third, his foreign policy is likely to be based on economic diplomacy aimed at strengthening Indonesia’s economy. Fourth, reflecting Indonesia’s emergence as a middle power, Jokowi is likely to continue advancing nationalist fervour especially in ensuring the welfare of Indonesian workers abroad.

Impact on International Relations

These pillars of Jokowi’s foreign policy are likely to impact Indonesia’s international relations. First, ASEAN will stand to gain if Indonesia continues to exercise strong leadership within the organisation. A key task will be the South China Sea dispute. Indonesia has not directly involved itself in the dispute, but has committed to assisting to work towards a diplomatic solution. Second, economic relations with a number of countries including China, Singapore, Australia and India are likely to increase as a result of Jokowi’s economic diplomacy. Third, and in a more negative sense, a more nationalist foreign policy will have a negative impact on Indonesia-Malaysia relations. Relations between the two countries have been severely affected by the alleged mistreatment of Indonesian workers in that country. Jokowi’s stated commitment to the welfare of Indonesian workers might result in the worsening of the country’s relations with Malaysia.

Another foreign policy issue that has lacked clarity is Indonesia-China relations. Jokowi has so far been non-committal about the future prospects of this relationship. Under Yudhoyono’s government, relations between the two countries have been excellent with China becoming Indonesia’s largest trade partner. During an official visit to Indonesia, Chinese President Xi Jinping stated China’s intentions to establish an Asian infrastructure investment bank to fund projects in the region and unveiled plans to build a new maritime silk road, which would enhance trade relations with ASEAN countries. Both initiatives fit Jokowi’s plans of enhancing infrastructural projects and turning Indonesia into a global maritime power. This policy would become clearer when Jokowi attends the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Beijing in November.

Indonesia’s relations with India, another emerging superpower are likely to grow. India and Indonesia have enjoyed a long history of excellent relations at political, economic and cultural level. Official trade volume between the two countries is likely to reach $25 billion by 2015. Jokowi has also stated in his election manifesto that Indonesia seeks to enhance regional defence diplomacy and maritime cooperation through multilateral entities such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), of which India is a member, clearly stating Indonesia’s commitment to augmenting relations with India in other realms.

It is clear that Jokowi’s domestic and foreign policies are still in nascent form. While it is still early to decipher the exact domestic and foreign policies Indonesia will pursue, it is likely that the new administration will face its toughest challenge on the domestic front and will continue to contribute positively towards the country’s emergence as a middle power.

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Dr Mohamed Nawab Bin Mohamed Osman
Dr Mohamed Nawab Bin Mohamed Osman is an Assistant Professor, Coordinator of Malaysia Programme (IDSS) at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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