Assessing the Jokowi Administration: A Narrative of Reform versus Élites

28 July 2016 Ressa-Basri Suyatna, Research Assistant, Indian Ocean Research Programme Download PDF

Key Points

  • The conflict that has existed since the early months of his Administration between the president’s reformist, but populist, instincts and the Jakarta political élite underscores the challenges that he faces.
  • Jokowi is constrained by the limits imposed on him by the élites, so his political capital is largely dependent on realising his vision for economic reform and growth.
  • He has attempted to overhaul Indonesia’s foreign policy direction, as envisaged in the Global Maritime Fulcrum, but his inexperience in security and foreign policy matters has undermined that vision.
  • Despite the obstacles confronting him, Jokowi has succeeding in breaking new ground simply by being an outsider elected to the highest office in the land.


The election of Joko Widodo – popularly known as “Jokowi” – to the presidency in 2014, marked a watershed moment in Indonesian politics. The election of a political “outsider” on the back of successful tenures as the governor of Jakarta and mayor of Solo (Surakarta) city was received with much of the same enthusiasm[1] that characterised Barack Obama’s US election victory in 2008. It was expected that such a president, perceived to be free of the clutches of the Jakarta political élites and oligarchs who had long dominated national politics, could – and would – reform and clean the system. Jokowi’s domestic focus on economic development, however, has been constrained by his inability to effectively manage those élites. In addition, he has struggled to implement centrepiece foreign policies such as the Global Maritime Fulcrum. There is now a sense among many that he lacks independence, although others argue that Jokowi’s vision for boosting economic growth has merit, but that it will take time to overcome the constraints.


Jokowi versus the Political Élites

The major platform of Jokowi’s election campaign was his claimed ability to fix national problems as he had done in Jakarta and Solo. His “Mr Fix-it” attitude gave voters a sense that reform was actually possible. The seemingly independent new president’s first few months in office, however, exposed the limits imposed on Jokowi by the entrenched élites. Despite his promise to take on those élites, he had to make deals that were contrary to his promises – a situation that voters found quite unpalatable. The personal, “hands-on” approach used during his tenure as governor of Jakarta effectively hit a ceiling at the national level. He was further constrained by those who he had to include in his Cabinet. Having based his reputation in part on the quality of his Cabinet appointees   – something of a gamble – he was left with little room for the type of ministers that he ideally would have liked to appoint. The first “working Cabinet”, appointed after the 2014 election, was riddled with party appointees and contradicted his promise of a technocratic Cabinet of experts.

In addition to experiencing party machinations and interventions, Jokowi also lacked experience of the national security apparatus. His former roles as a local leader meant that he had almost no contact with the national security apparatus which, since the reformasi era, had been disconnected from local politics. This disconnect meant that he was more amenable to – or reliant on – the whims of his party (Partai Demokrasi Indonesia-Perjuangan (PDI-P), or Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle) in putting up its own candidates to further cement the party’s position in the Cabinet. Such political and institutional constraints reduced his ability to clean up Indonesia’s narrow and patronage-ridden politics, as his voter base had expected him to do. As Vedi Hadiz and Richard Robison observed, ‘substantial reform cannot take place without oligarchic co-operation.[2] Much of what transpired during Jokowi’s first few months in office was indicative of the challenges that he would face in the inevitable response from the élites to meaningful political reform. A prime example of that was the candidacy of Budi Gunawan for the role of national police chief in January 2015.

A former adjutant for influential PDI-P party leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri, the powerful Budi was under investigation by the Corruption Eradication Commission (Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi: KPK) for allegedly illicit earnings. In what became a watershed moment for Jokowi, his nomination of Budi, presumably under instructions from the party oligarchs, harmed his public image as a corruption fighter, even though such appointments had not been at all uncommon in previous administrations. The matter did not end there, though. Budi’s nomination was halted but two of the KPK’s most senior officials were arrested soon after by the police for separate alleged criminal offences.[3]

In the perceived assault on the KPK by the national police, with the support of many in parliament, Jokowi sat by. While the KPK is viewed as the unofficial defender of democracy by voters, it was constantly under assault with arrests of investigators and cutting lines of enquiry, with no respite. This was deeply disappointing to the voter base that elected Jokowi, as it was expected that he would defend the organisation. In what is confirmation of his inexperience or unease in dealing with the better politics of the KPK-police relationship, Jokowi has instead chosen to focus on economic matters:

‘Jokowi … is putting his political capital on the economy. Taking on vested interests will have to wait. For now, he will concentrate in improving the country’s infrastructure and economic climate.’

Foreign Policy with an Economic Focus: A “Jokowi Doctrine”?

While the failings of Jokowi’s tenure so far relate mainly to his difficulty with political manoeuvrings and management of the security apparatus, he seemingly feels more comfortable addressing economic issues and another reason why he has not been able to maintain his initial popularity is his ‘preference for economic measures over democratic reform. Economics is the main focus of both his maritime and foreign policies, for instance.

That is not to say that bureaucratic and governance reforms will not be enacted. Jokowi has already introduced reforms that have increased productivity by easing the burden of red tape on existing businesses. Other measures, such as the creation of fast-track approval agencies specifically for infrastructure projects and the relaxation of import barriers for manufacturing have also achieved similar results in the short to medium terms. In the long run, the key objective of Jokowi’s economic reform plans is to revamp and increase investment in the country’s ageing infrastructure. The overall infrastructure investment plan hinges on the Global Maritime Fulcrum, which, by boosting the maritime economy and increasing the interconnectivity between the archipelago’s multitudes of islands, is to encourage greater foreign investment. It is hoped that better inter-port connectivity will create a strong domestic supply chain that can be readily used by both domestic and foreign investors alike.

Much of the diplomatic efforts of the foreign ministry and Jokowi have been thus based mainly on clinching economic deals and securing investment packages. Though it might be narrow in scope, Jokowi’s foreign policy with an economic focus is a good way of demonstrating to domestic audiences the usefulness of diplomacy in achieving increased and, perhaps most importantly, equitable economic growth. That is important because the government of Jokowi’s predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, with its oft-quoted maxim of ‘a thousand friends, zero enemies’, was frequently criticised as being ‘toothless and lacking coherence and direction’.[4] Much of the Yudhoyono Government’s foreign policy approach was based on “values” but that was ultimately quite irrelevant to the average Indonesian citizen, who did not see any tangible benefits accruing from it.[5] The economic diplomacy pursued by Jokowi still makes him a nationalist in terms of reinforcing the bias towards domestic investors, but much of his efforts are also geared towards making Indonesia a friendlier environment for foreign investors and enacting legislation to support that goal. That nationalist agenda, however, risks bringing to the surface protectionist tendencies that can easily derail initiatives and deter foreign and domestic businesses alike. The key for Jokowi will be to maintain his policy momentum so as to further legitimise his reformist agenda and fulfil his election promises.

The Global Maritime Fulcrum: Hype or Reality?

The Jokowi Administration has recognised the archipelagic nature of Indonesia as an asset and is trying to turn it into an advantage. That vision is challenged by the ‘13,466-island problem’, which includes such issues as poor maritime infrastructure, an underfunded (and ageing) naval fleet, illegal fishing by foreign vessels and piracy in vital sea lanes. The Global Maritime Fulcrum (GMF) is effectively still only a vision and efforts at realising it have not progressed very far. Close interdepartmental co-ordination is a prerequisite for strong coherent responses that use the GMF as a stepping stone to confront future challenges. The actions undertaken in the past 18 months, however, have been chaotic, as individual ministries have pursued their own interpretations of what the GMF should be based on.

The basis for Jokowi’s GMF vision goes hand in hand with his idea for revamped maritime infrastructure that better connects the islands, thereby enhancing maritime production chains, attracting further investment and diffusing economic growth. The other aspect, though, is the related need for increased maritime defence expenditure in the form of modernised navy and coast guard units and deeper defence co-operation with allies. As Jokowi said in his 2015 East Asia Summit Speech, ‘Indonesia is “obliged” as a “fulcrum between two oceans” to bolster its maritime defences both to protect its own sovereignty and for regional safety of navigation and maritime security’. In reality, and at least in the case of those departments responsible for maritime and foreign policy, policies seem to be more driven by their respective bureaucracies rather than the president, sending out incoherent messages that could fracture his overall regional posture.[6] In the more recent clashes between Indonesian maritime forces and Chinese vessels in the waters off the Natuna Islands, Jokowi’s overall stance was incoherent at best, with differing responses from the foreign ministry, maritime and defence departments[7] and the president does not appear willing to use the GMF vision as a way of securing a unified response to a China that is increasingly asserting itself in Indonesian waters. That will need to be addressed before Jokowi can even think of projecting any sort of official pushback, whether it is diplomatic or military. His reluctance to balance and hedge against China on this issue, with either ASEAN and/or the US, which was the traditional response, means that on top of his inability to rein in domestic policy actors, he has also failed to pay serious attention to foreign policy.

Jokowi’s choices of Defence Minister and TNI (Armed Forces) Chief of Staff were also potential flashpoints that further muddied the waters surrounding the maritime-oriented defence policy of the future that the GMF will depend upon. The appointment of General Gatot Nurmantyo as Commander of the Armed Forces (Panglima TNI) and Ryamizard Ryacudu as Defence Minister surprised most analysts. A retired general, Ryamizard is the first non-civilian defence minister in 14 years and was Army Chief of Staff under President Megawati). The TNI Panglima and the Defence Minister both hail from the army and are known to be domestically biased and conservative. Neither has had an overseas secondment and both rose through the ranks in the midst of military embargoes during the last decade of the New Order government. The most recent Defence White Paper reiterated their world view with a renewed focus on domestic affairs[8] that would seem to run contrary to presidential policy. Their calls for a greater role for the army skew resource allocations in an already tight fiscal climate and undermine a navy-based strategic consolidation to underpin the GMF. Such constant policy conflicts suggest that, so far at least, Jokowi’s GMF vision cannot be applied to solving regional conflicts.

It is important to remember, though, that Jokowi has managed to do reasonably well despite the odds against him. As a political outsider, he has broken ground simply by being elected to the highest office in the land. His vision of the Global Maritime Fulcrum can potentially serve both his domestic economic narrative and foreign policy. But visions are exactly that; they are not policy. In terms of enacting the necessary policy goals and governmental reforms he has been less successful, particularly since the Jakarta élites and oligarchs still hold great sway. While they are assets, his “local” leadership style and outsider background have also contributed to his greenness in the harmonising of diplomatic and foreign policy.


[1] Mietzner, M., ‘Reinventing Asian Populism: Jokowi’s Rise, Democracy, and Political Contestation in Indonesia’, Policy Studies, № 72, 2015, East-West Centre: Honolulu.

[2] Hadiz, V. and Robison, R., ‘The Political Economy of Oligarchy and the Reorganization of Power in Indonesia, Indonesia, № 96, 2013, pp: 35-57.

[3] Muhtadi, B., ‘Jokowi’s First Year: A Weak President Caught between Reform and Oligarchic Politics’, Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies, Vol. 51, № 3, September 2015.

[4] Situmorang, M., 2014, ‘Orientasi Kebijakan Politik Luar Negeri Indonesia di bawah Pemerintahan Jokowi-JK’ [Foreign Policy Orientation of Indonesia under the Jokowi Government’], Jurnal Ilmiah Hubungan Internasional, Universitas Katolik Parahyangan: Bandung.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Yohanes, S. and Nelson, B., ‘The Implications of Jokowi’s Global Maritime Axis’, The Hub: International Perspectives, Stratfor, 8 April 2015.

[7] Nathan, B., ‘Domestic Forces behind Indonesia’s Paradoxical Maritime Policy’, Asia Pacific Bulletin, № 341, 20 April 2016, East-West Centre: Honolulu.

[8]Perpres № 97/2015: Inilah Kebijakan Umum Pertahanan Negara Tahun 2015-2019’, [‘Presidential Decree № 97/2015: National Defence Public Policy 2015-2019’], Cabinet Secretariat of the Republic of Indonesia, 2015. <>.

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