Indonesia swears in Widodo as president amid stiff political resistance

Thousands of Indonesians poured into the streets of Jakarta on Monday to welcome the new president. Joko Widodo's populist agenda has made him a star among the middle-class and poor, while driving a wedge between him and Indonesia's traditional elite.

Dita Alangkara/AP
Indonesian President Joko Widodo delivers a speech during his inauguration ceremony at the parliament building in Jakarta on Monday.

Joko Widodo was sworn in today as Indonesia's seventh president amid exuberant crowds here, riding a wave of support from voters who backed his sweeping reformist agenda.

Popularly known as Jokowi, the former businessman has carved out a reputation as a pragmatic and dedicated politician and was previously governor of Jakarta. His supporters hope to see him continue his populist approach as president of the world’s third largest democracy after India and the United States. 

Mr. Widodo was elected in July after a tense campaign against Prabowo Subianto, a former army general who accused Widodo of electoral fraud following the ballot results. Indonesia’s constitutional court rejected Mr. Subianto’s case in August, officially making Widodo the first Indonesian president elected from outside the military and political elite.

With the court challenge behind him, Widodo can finally focus on governing Indonesia. But first he needs to find coalition partners in a deeply divided parliament to help shepherd his plans for bureaucratic reform and overhauls of infrastructure, education, and healthcare.

Widodo could be getting close: One of the smaller parties allied with Mr. Subianto's opposition coalition said it was in talks to join the government. Other parties may soon follow suit as their leaders hope to join Widodo’s cabinet, giving him leverage against the opposition. Before the inauguration, he hosted Aburizal Bakrie, chairman of the largest opposition party, Golkar at a high-end Jakarta restaurant. 

Widodo’s predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, faced similar challenges when he was first elected president in 2004. His Democratic Party held only 7 percent of the seats in parliament at the time. But within months, his vice president had helped deliver Golkar, then the largest bloc in parliament, to the government’s coalition.

On Monday, the same vice president, Yusuf Kalla, was sworn in as Widodo's vice president. Philips Vermonte, a researcher at the Council for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, said he expected Kalla to challenge Bakrie’s hold on Golkar. 

“Kalla may help find a more sympathetic leader as rank and file members seethe at being frozen out of the corridors of power,” Mr. Vermonte said. “You can be sure he’s rounding up suitable candidates to challenge Bakrie.”

In recent weeks, Mr. Bakrie and Subianto had threatened to use their 63-percent majority in parliament to delay the inauguration and even to amend the constitution to end direct presidential elections. 

“It’s been a very nerve wracking three weeks,” said Sandra Hamid, the country representative in Indonesia for the Asia Foundation, a nonprofit research group. “There’s almost a sense of relief that the inauguration has gone ahead and the country finally has a new president." 

Legislative agenda

In late September, Subianto’s opposition coalition voted to end direct elections for regional leaders such as governors and mayors. Earlier this month, the bloc also snagged key leadership positions in parliament – including speakers in both the upper and lower house – ensuring a degree of control over the legislative agenda.

Subianto’s wealthy brother and chief adviser, Hashim Djojohadikusomo, has repeatedly vowed to “obstruct” Widodo’s reforms. He's also promised to investigate allegations of wrongdoing while Widodo was governor of Jakarta.

“There are great, great expectations on Jokowi right now,” Hamid said. “He has to manage a balancing act: Deliver reform without inviting a backlash from Prabowo."

Widodo’s reformist agenda includes promises to root out government corruption, streamline bureaucracy, and invest in services for the poor, in part by rolling back the country’s $25 billion fuel subsidy. The subsidy accounts for nearly a fifth of the government’s budget – more than health and education spending combined – and remains popular among Indonesians who have grown accustomed to cheap fuel.

Widodo’s appeal almost certainly got a boost Monday as tens of thousands of people cheered his procession by horse-drawn carriage to a national monument in downtown Jakarta, where he gave a rousing 10-minute speech in the square. 

Braving the scorching midday sun, Shandy, a local university student, said she was moved by the outpouring of support from the enthusiastic crowd.

“It’s amazing so many are here,” said Ms. Shandy, who like many Indonesians uses only one name. “I came here today because I wanted to see that it was for real.”

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