When Joko Widodo rode out of the Java hinterland like a proverbial knight on a white horse, it was probably inevitable that only good things would be ascribed to a common man who had captured the imagination of the country by taking on and beating Jakarta’s political elite.

It didn’t seem possible after 15 years of scratchy democratic rule that a lowly furniture maker who dared to have a dream he could somehow assume an office previously reserved for military generals and the self-entitled.

Five years later, and with analysts trying to measure what his newly won second term will bring, it is clear the otherwise well-meaning Widodo has not lived up to the early hype and that his ad hoc governing style will remain a major concern going forward.

After his 2014 victory, Widodo was compared to US President Barack Obama. But that was nonsense, raising the level of expectation and his status as an ideological leader to absurd levels, more so when rival and ex-soldier Prabowo Subianto was demonized as the second coming of Hitler because of his manner and human rights record.

The Western media’s overly ebullient reaction brought back memories of the period before the fall of president Suharto, with Newsweek magazine running a cover story on then opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri titled: “Megawati: Will she lead Indonesia to democracy?” 

Despite her image as an icon of democracy battling a cruel dictator, the daughter of founding president Sukarno was never that, and it soon became apparent in the iron grip she held on her own party and in her frustration in having to deal with a rambunctious Parliament.

The leader of the Indonesia Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) Megawati Sukarnoputri looks at a booth displaying memorabilia on the sidelines of the 4th PDIP congress at the Inna Grand Bali Beach hotel on the resort island of Bali April 10, 2015 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. REUTERS/Antara Foto/Andika Wahyu ???ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. MANDATORY CREDIT. INDONESIA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN INDONESIA.? - RTR4WS5T
Indonesia Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) founder Megawati Sukarnoputri. Photo: Reuters via Antara Foto/Andika Wahyu

The first wake-up call that Widodo wasn’t quite the reformer he appeared to be when he allowed the execution of 20 convicted drug traffickers in 2015-2016, saying Indonesia was in the middle of a drug emergency and needed to send a strong message of deterrence.

After interviewing him on the issue at the time, a European journalist said she was startled to find no hint of compassion in a man who had never been exposed to the global moral debate over capital punishment and remains largely uninterested in foreign affairs.

As it turned out, many of the new president’s closest advisers in the palace were little-known but trusted associates from Solo, his Central Java home town, with no more worldly experience than the president himself. Even today, they remain closeted in the palace and away from the public eye.

Anyone who entertained the idea that Widodo would re-open a slew of unresolved Suharto-era human rights cases were also to be disappointed, especially when he had to call on military support in an early conflict with the police leadership.

Now, with loyalists at the head of both the military and the police, something that became an important comfort blanket with the challenge from the religious fundamentalists, critics complain the security forces have become increasingly partisan. 

His subsequent decision to revise the law on mass organizations and impose a ban on the radical global network Hizbut Tahrir, and his growing irritation with criticism provided civil society critics with further evidence of a turn towards authoritarianism and a decline in democratic values.

“He wasn’t an activist and he never promised democratic consolidation,” says political scientist Dewi Fortuna Anwar, who wants to see civil society push for a new round of reforms during Widodo’s second term. “It’s not an issue that should be left to the government.”

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (C) arrives for a press conference after the country’s presidential and legislative elections on April 17, 2019. Photo: AFP/Goh Chai Hin

It should have been a clue early on when Jokowi, as he is commonly known, offered the opinion that the presidency was really no bigger a deal than his previous jobs as a hometown mayor and the short-lived governor of Jakarta. Ruling a country of 260 million people was always going to be more than that.

Recruiting retired military commander General Moeldoko as presidential chief of staff in place of the mild-mannered Teten Masduki appears to have made only a marginal difference. Chief economic minister Darmin Nasution complains that few ministers show up at his meetings, preferring to talk to the president directly.

“Everyone is very frustrated and trying to provide some sort of input,” says one former economic minister, who believes there is an urgent need for technocrats to take over the trade and energy portfolios in Widodo’s new Cabinet. “But they are pessimistic that it can be done.”

The ex-minister and other former senior officials say the economy’s ability to grow beyond five percent will be severely impaired unless there are significant improvements to how the presidential palace functions and to related policy-making processes. 

“Most of the oligarchs like things as they are,” explains a retired ministerial aide. “They don’t like structure. They like this kind of chaos. It’s easier to do things. It’s a perfect setting for them. Every oligarch, every party wants something. And in the end it is that which impacts harmfully on the economy.”

Widodo is already said to be pondering the idea of making sweeping Cabinet changes, soon after the results of the elections are officially announced in May, as a way of trying out shadow ministers ahead of the formation of a new coalition government in October.

Sources familiar with the proposed reshuffle, which may affect all portfolios with the exception of the foreign and defense ministries, is aimed at trying to widen the president’s circle of trust so he listens to more people across a broader spectrum of issues.

Indonesian cleric Ma'ruf Amin heads Nahdlatul Ulama, the country's largest mass Muslim organization. Photo: Youtube
Newly elected Vice President Ma’ruf Amin in a screen grab photo. Photo: Youtube

But it is also designed to eliminate, or at least minimize, Vice President Ma’ruf Amin’s future role and, perhaps more importantly, also to reduce the inevitable horse-trading among the ruling coalition parties before the new political constellation takes shape.

If it goes ahead, the timing may depend on Widodo’s final margin of victory. But for all the talk of him becoming more independent, the president will also still have to satisfy Megawati, the ruling Indonesian Democrat Party for Struggle (PDI-P) leader, when PDI-P will likely to control more seats in the 575-seat parliament.

Critics say as important as it is to make the bureaucracy responsive to the political process, the president is so preoccupied with trying to improve investment services and the ease of doing business that he is neglecting the need for better policy direction.

Many of his decisions are considered knee-jerk and although he understands what has to be done, he has been unable to develop a medium-term strategy to accomplish it when autarkic economic nationalism stands as a barrier to the foreign investment needed to revitalize manufacturing.

That and persistent regulatory uncertainty is seen to be the reason why realized foreign investment fell from US$13.1 billion in 2017 to $10.4 billion last year, and local investment dropped from 99.2 trillion rupiah ($7 billion) to 83.6 trillion ($5.9 billion).

Widodo remains fixated on helping the common man. Once asked who he would choose, an Indonesian investing 100 million rupiah in a business employing 10 people, or a foreign investor spending $100 million on a project employing several thousand, Widodo opted for the Indonesian.

Developing eastern Indonesia is part of that. Certainly it explains why against all expert advice, the president insisted on making the new Masela gas field an onshore rather than an offshore project, despite the extra cost involved in running a pipeline across a deep undersea chasm.

An election sticker with the image of new Indonesian President Joko Widodo is seen on a motorcycle gas tank as it is filled with subsidised fuel at a state-owned Pertamina petrol station in Jakarta October 31, 2014. Indonesia's new government will make changes to its costly gasoline and diesel subsidies before the end of the year, the country's chief economics minister said on Thursday. An advisor to Widodo, who was sworn in on Oct. 20, told Reuters earlier this month that a fuel price hike of 3,000 rupiah was planned by the new government, possibly as early as Nov. 1. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside (INDONESIA - Tags: POLITICS ENERGY BUSINESS) - RTR4C9YL
An election sticker of Indonesian President Joko Widodo on a motorcycle gas tank as it is filled with fuel at a state-owned Pertamina petrol station in Jakarta in a file photo. Photo: Reuters/Darren Whiteside

The presidential election debates were mostly about symbols and slogans with few hints from Widodo of what can be expected in a second term. Issues, apart from the very basic ones that affect personal livelihoods, have never been part of Indonesia’s political discourse.

Guided perhaps by the disappointment that attended predecessor Bambang Susilo Yudhoyono’s second term, economists believe Widodo will only usher in more of the same, though with the policy emphasis shifting away from infrastructure and towards human resource development.

Crucially, the government has yet to come up with a conceptual framework to improve the quality of education, now regarded as the single biggest impediment to Indonesia’s economic development. Spending 20% of the budget on education over the past decade has accomplished little, especially in teaching students how to think critically.

Widodo is clearly sincere in his  efforts at social reform, including in health, education and conditional cash transfers. But veteran Indonesian watchers like Australian Hal Hill note that the government’s fiscal policy space is severely restricted by a new surge in election-related subsidies and a tax base that remains at a stubbornly low 12 % of gross domestic product, despite the high hopes held after a huge 2016 tax amnesty.

The challenge for Widodo will be to make Indonesia’s economic growth more inclusive, which Prabowo often raised during the election campaign without seeming to make a serious dent in the president’s overall popularity among rural voters.

One recent Indonesian think tank study says that despite Widodo’s policy initiatives, it is the middle class which is reaping most of the benefits from economic growth —  strangely the same people who have been at the forefront of the Islamic resurgence who supported Prabowo’s losing candidacy.