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Is Indonesia's pro-reform leader learning the art of the doable?

Path to progress

When first elected on a wave of democratic fervor, Joko Widodo was hampered by a lack of links to Jakarta elites or leverage with the powerful military.

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    Indonesian President Joko Widodo gestures during an interview with Reuters at the presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, in February 2016.
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When Joko Widodo became Indonesia’s president almost 18 months ago, he swept in on tides of emotion and promises of dramatic change. But it has been lonely for him at the top.

Jokowi, as he is better known here, benefited from a meteoric rise from small-town mayor to president of the world’s third-largest democracy in scarcely a decade. But that ascent left him few friends in high places, no national network of his own, and owing many favors to political patrons.

The man who promised sweeping government reforms – even a “mental revolution” that would discard patronage for accountability and hard work – has had to pare back some of his ambitious agenda. But observers and analysts suggest the less-is-more approach to reforms now appears to be manageable, and that Jokowi is beginning to find his footing as a leader.

Facing opposition in parliament and bickering in his own cabinet, Jokowi has been scaling down his proposed reforms and working to usher in a series of smaller economic fixes – lifting tariffs and quotas and enlisting business support – aimed at igniting growth and aiding millions of poor citizens in time for the next election in 2019. 

“Jokowi needs a strong team to deliver his reforms. This is not the case now,” said Firmanzah, rector of Paramadina University, who like many Indonesians uses only one name.

“He rose too fast. When he took office he had no political supporters. He had to be accommodating.”

The enthusiasm that attended Jokowi’s rise to president marked a series of firsts along the country’s journey toward democracy. But it may have exposed the populist leader's own limitations. He was, for example, the first president without strong links to the military or to elites in Jakarta, the capital.

A relative neophyte 

Jokowi was also the first president not to lead his own party: the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle. Instead, Megawati Sukarnoputri, a former president and daughter of Indonesia’s independence leader Sukarno holds that position.

When in 2012 Jokowi became the mayor of Jakarta, he was a relative neophyte on the political scene here. When he ascended to the presidency two years later, he was unfamiliar with many of the names his party nominated for plum jobs, and Jokowi found that he lacked the leverage to push back against the selections, even if he wanted to.

Discord and dysfunction followed.

For example, the prominent Indonesian economist and politician Rizal Ramli, who had joined Jokowi's cabinet with a maritime portfolio, got into a public spat with the oil minister, Sudirman Said. Without warning, Mr. Ramli announced to a parliamentary committee that he was shelving long-planned pipeline and storage projects worth $7.4 billion, dismaying foreign investors and throwing a wrench into efforts to reinvigorate the country’s slumping oil and gas production.

Then there was an embarrassing slap down by Jokowi of his transport minister, Ignasius Jonan, after he banned Uber and other ride-sharing apps. Jokowi took to Twitter to reverse the decision, arguing that the services have become “essential” to daily life.

One of the bigger dust-ups took place early in Jokowi’s presidency when Megawati lobbied hard to have her former security adviser, Budi Gunawan, replace the outgoing police chief.

For a new president who ran on an anti-corruption platform, it was hard to ignore that Budi Gunawan was in the midst of a graft probe by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). The KPK is wildly popular with the public and loathed by politicians for its success in jailing senior officials. When the KPK made good on its threat to investigate, the police responded by arresting some of its leaders.

“The cabinet and the party is a big concern for the Indonesian people,” said Firmanzah. “The public finds the bickering disturbing.”

Putting reform back on track 

Parliament also remains a thorn in Jokowi’s side. He has yet to cobble together a majority in the legislature. This has hamstrung efforts at reforms like a proposed tax amnesty that would repatriate hundreds of billions of dollars in overseas accounts.

But there are signs that Jokowi is putting a basic reform train back on track.

Since September he’s skirted parliament with a series of executive orders aimed at lifting some of the protectionist measures of his predecessor Susilo Bamabang Yudhoyono. He’s lifted tariffs and quotas on consumer goods and food like beef, helping keep a lid on inflation. Jokowi has also eased limits on foreign ownership in sectors including toll roads, restaurants, and logistics. A small coterie of business-minded ministers now help Jokowi sell the reforms.

Tom Lembong, a former private equity investor and Harvard graduate, is one of those ministers. He joined the cabinet in September as minister of trade.

Last month he told the Monitor that the new rounds of deregulation, as Jokowi's executive orders are known, were just getting started. Mr. Lembong rejects the notion that Jokowi is a hostage to events and insists he is committed to seeing through at least some of his reform agenda.

“The president is driving this process,” Lembong said. “Indonesia is still one of the most restrictive economies in the world.”

Jokowi’s willingness to flex the power of his office, while populating the cabinet with a sprinkling of like-minded ministers, suggests he is learning his job and deserves more time, says Yuli Ismartono, the publisher of the English language edition of Tempo magazine.

“He is consolidating his power,” Ismartono argues. “Things have been turning around lately.”

To be sure, Jokowi remains popular and has been free of scandal in a country where this has been rare. 

At the Tanah Abang market in central Jakarta, shoppers and stall owns are inclined to be patient, at least for now.

“He’s a good man,” said Suriyadi, who mans the counter at a small pharmacy there. “He still has time.”

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