It has been three years since Joko “Jokowi” Widodo took the oath at the House of Representatives as the president. Jokowi is the first Indonesian president elected from outside the circle of the political and military elite, thus considered a newbie in national politics. Nevertheless, observing what he has withstood so far, Jokowi has proven himself to be an agile and tough political player in Indonesia. 

It took only two years for Jokowi to tip the political balance by controlling almost 70 percent of support in the House, compared to 37 percent of the House on his first day in office. This helped pave the way for his reform agenda. Golkar (the second-largest political party), the National Mandate Party (PAN) and United Development Party (PPP) had switched their allegiance, leaving only Gerindra and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) in the opposition camp.

In a masterstroke of political maneuvering, he exercised his presidential authority with a “carrot-and-stick” strategy, exploiting divisions in rival parties to form a large ruling coalition. The “stick” part of the approach was evident when the PPP and Golkar were driven by internal feuding. The government recognized only the pro-Jokowi faction of each party, disrupting the unity of the opposition coalition. This stern approach had succeeded in ousting opposition factions and bringing both parties into the government coalition.

The “carrot” part of the strategy was used by offering Cabinet posts to these parties in return for supporting the government. Ministerial positions are like gold for political parties because they provide access to substantial political resources, a valuable capital that can help them prepare for the 2019 political year.

Jokowi appointed Lukman Hakim Saifuddin of the PPP as the religious affairs minister, Asman Abnur from PAN as the administrative and bureaucratic reform minister and Golkar’s Airlangga Hartanto as the industry minister. Jokowi also approved the reappointment of Setya Novanto as the House speaker, despite the Setya being linked to several corruption cases. The move came after Setya replaced Aburizal Bakrie as Golkar chairman and joined the government coalition.

The President employed the carrot-and-stick strategy not only for forming his coalition, but also for maintaining its solidity to support key policies. For instance, in deliberation of the 2016 state budget, Jokowi used PAN to convince the opposition Gerindra to support the budget. After that, Jokowi rewarded PAN with a post in his third Cabinet reshuffle.

Jokowi also demonstrated his mettle in handling deliberations of the election bill. The Gerindra-led opposition coalition had wanted to scrap a requirement that parties must have 20 percent of the seats in the House to be able to nominate a presidential candidate. Parties such as PAN, the PPP and the National Awakening Party (PKB) also supported opposition stance, as the threshold would likely prevent them from nominating their own presidential candidates in 2019.

The government rejected the proposal to scrap the threshold and warned political parties that the President would reassess the coalition structure after deliberation of the election bill. The threat worked. When the House voted on the bill, the PPP and the PKB changed their stance. They opted to secure their Cabinet posts. The government won the voting session in a landslide, while the opposition coalition and PAN staged a walkout.

Many pundits say Jokowi is simply following the tactics of his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, in order to secure his presidency. Jokowi has been accused of compromising his principles to secure the support of former opposition parties. For instance, several human rights activists who were Jokowi’s main supporters in the 2014 presidential election have now criticized Jokowi’s meek stance on human rights issues. The protest culminated when Jokowi issued a regulation in lieu of law (Perppu) on mass organizations that was deemed a direct threat for civil liberties by human rights groups.

Even though he compromised several agendas, Jokowi’s approach was different. Unlike Yudhoyono, who welcomed all political parties and accommodated their interests through many concessions, Jokowi’s carrot-and-stick approach has made him less indebted to political parties. This advantage ensures his superiority in the coalition, enabling him to push his key agendas on infrastructure, maritime affairs and reduction of inequality.

Moreover, a recent survey by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) shows that the public is satisfied with the Jokowi administration’s performance on those key issues. It further confirms that Jokowi is still able to materialize his priorities without significant trade-off.

Jokowi’s ingenuity in politics has now rendered political parties even more interested in supporting him in the 2019 presidential election. Several coalition members like Golkar, the PPP and the Hanura Party have declared their intention to support Jokowi’s reelection. Support from those parties has secured 33 percent of seats in the House, which is more than enough to pass the 20 percent presidential threshold.

Nevertheless, they can suddenly change their stance, because in politics nothing is certain.

Looking at our political chessboard today, however, it is worth noting that Jokowi has transformed himself from a rookie to a prominent politician. He can overcome imminent threats from the opposition coalition in the early years of his administration.

The former furniture maker has built robust political capital, not only to secure his presidency but also to give him a clear advantage in the 2019 presidential election. This definitely will pose a great challenge to every potential presidential contender that has less than two years to counter Jokowi’s political might.


Piebo Dimas Perdana is a consultant at Kiroyan Partners. The views expressed are his own.

Source: The Jakarta Post, October 20, 2017, page 7.

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