Widodo After 18 Months: Not Just Good Story-Telling

Pencitraan, the art of looking good

President Joko Widodo is emerging as the master of ‘pencitraan’ – the creation of positive public perception when the facts may be far less attractive. Just over 18 months into his presidency, he is maturing as a national leader and getting into his stride, but some doubt remains about how much of his success so far is based on real achievements and how much is a carefully nurtured mirage of spin.

There are, without doubt, some real achievements. Ending fuel subsidies was a major step from day one and while revenue has fallen far short of expectations as a result of the slower pace of the economy, Widodo is nevertheless pushing ahead with infrastructure work. His series of economic packages has been criticized for lacking substance, but major multinational institutions and independent analysts credit them for creating a more positive mood about Indonesia in the investment community. In the sphere of politics, the oppositionist mood of the House of Representatives that Widodo faced in his first months of office has been almost entirely eroded.

Much has not been done. Promises to provide an improved human rights environment have been largely neglected. While the president has called for more protection of minorities, they continue to face discrimination. Foreign policy, which initially degraded to represent little more than investment marketing, is only now starting to get on track.

While the image-building that the president is so keen on does disguise some shortfalls, on balance the Widodo administration is a breath of fresh air after the decade-long rule of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, in which very little was achieved.

Widodo, for instance, has pushed through changes to the Land Acquisition Act which allow land needed for important projects to be taken over and compensation then to be settled through the courts. Yudhoyono failed to achieve any forward motion in this area throughout his presidency. He held a variety of conferences and summits on investment without doing anything to improve the investment climate, resulting in a deep trough in commitments. While Widodo’s regulatory changes remain a work in progress, there is renewed interest in the country driven by its attractive market and growing middle class.

Not just a pretty face
People have been talking about the president’s image-building since he was just a candidate, with predictions then that the public was already getting tired of it. There’s no indication, however, that those predictions were correct and the public continues to seem happy with what they see.

Two possible conclusions can be drawn about Joko Widodo’s presidency. The first is that the image he has continued to nurture as a “man of the people” masks a skilful politician who tends to sit back and let others take the damage when problems emerge. He can keep his hands clean and watch those who might be vying for a slice of power suffer a loss of public opinion.

The other possible conclusion is that Widodo remains a puppet in the hands of other powerful forces. Those forces would clearly include the military, which has got everything it wants from him: promises of a continuing stream of cash for modernization and a free hand to restore its old role of the major force in domestic society. But Widodo has succeeded in distancing himself from his over-bearing party leader at the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), Megawati Sukarnoputri, who has appeared to run out of steam in her attempts to maintain control of her party cadre.

There is more evidence to support the first view than the second. In essence, Jokowi is a businessman, a sales-oriented individual who knows how to market himself to strengthen his brand. He had good capital in the form of image to begin with. This helps him to be adept as a politician, presumably backed by a good PR team that benefits from sound analysis of social media that allows him to feed his fans with what he perceives will keep them loyal. That there is at times little substance to his marketing hype is another issue.

Papua, Jakarta and more

Papua is a good example of ‘pencitraan’. Widodo stressed early in his presidency that he wanted to improve the lives of indigenous Papuans and would impose a new development paradigm. Little has happened to suggest that is happening. Rather, the military continues to use the area as its playground, with the police playing the same game in silencing voices of dissent. Promises from Widodo of a new development paradigm have not been pursued.

Widodo’s capacity to let others deal with the impacts of his policies is best illustrated by events in Jakarta. The crises involving Governor Basuki Tjajhaja Purnama are directly linked to the policies Widodo set down when he was elected to the position in 2012. Purnama is simply following the script. There are suspicions that the Jakarta administration has been working hand-in-glove with big developers in the controversial reclamation project in Jakarta Bay in order to see money passed to Widodo as he prepares for his own re-election campaign in 2019. Next year’s Jakarta elections are in many ways a dress rehearsal for Widodo’s own bid for another five years in power.

Much criticism has been directed at Purnama over his tough stance on evictions of the poor from areas that he wants to turn into green space. Some suspect that despite Widodo’s overt pro-poor stance, what he really wants is to see Purnama continue his policy of turning the capital into a modern city where there is no room for the poor. That will create opportunities for developers, and cash for political campaigns.

Is Jokowi really pro-people? Concord Strategic put that question to Ikrar Nusa Bhakti, senior research professor in politics at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), in an interview in his office.  “That’s hard to answer,” he responded. “He’s a businessman. What he believes is that efforts to improve business will help people get jobs and improve their income. Most regulations are connected with business and investment. They are for rich people. For cooperatives and small and medium enterprises very little is being done. But if Jokowi can stay in power for five years, he can make a big difference. His dreams can be realized.”

That presumes that success for business will mean better conditions for everyone. And, to Widodo’s credit, his expansion of social security programs has been well-received by the wider public, and appreciation of programs on education, health and support for the poor shows up strongly in poll results.

Wins, losses

Apart from his capacities as a story-teller, Widodo has over the past 18 months scored some significant wins. Foremost among these has been taming the political parties. The country has gone from a post-election situation in which a majority of the parties was lined up against him to one where only two parties – the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and the Greater Indonesia Movement (Gerindra) – are still holding out.

But success brings new problems. The decision of the other formerly oppositionist parties to back Widodo’s policies is interpreted as meaning they want a slice of power, such as a ministerial post or two where they can plant their favorite sons and daughters.

That creates a dilemma for Widodo. After reshuffling his cabinet once in August 2015 he has found that creating unity within the government is far harder than taming the political parties. Yudi Latif, a member of the steering committee on the proposal to restore the Outlines of State Policy (GBHN), describes the current cabinet as “gado-gado” after Indonesia’s peanut-spiced vegetable dish – a bit of this and a bit of that.

The problem with that, he wrote in an op-ed article in Kompas, is the lack of a shared ideology. Battles rage in the public forum between the liberal capitalism-inclined and the national sovereignty at all costs group. The official guiding vision of Nawacita – Widodo’s high-minded philosophy for a new Indonesia – is lost, if indeed it ever had much meaning. Nawacita includes commitments to promote good governance, judicial reform, improvement of the national education system, development of border and remote areas, goals to provide a sense of security through development of a reliable defense strategy and a free and active foreign policy.

The result, argued Latif, is that members of the cabinet strive to exceed each other in building images, without much in the way of solid foundations. “The world of politics and the cabinet are packed with plastic politicians, publicity stunts and superficial image-building which lack context, vision and moral substance,” he wrote.

Some sound support

Ikrar Nusa Bhakti has a different perspective on Widodo’s cabinet. While some figures such as Cooperatives and SME Minister Anak Agung Gede Ngurah Puspayoga have done nothing, he says others such as Transportation Minister Ignasius Jonan and Public Works and Housing Minister Basuki Hadimuljono have been effective.

“If you look at the programs of the government, mostly infrastructure, building airports and roads, you cannot compare with Yudhoyono’s government. His government built many harbors, but it took a long time. If you look at under Jonan and the Public Works Minister it has taken only one or two years.” The Ultimate Three Terminal at Soekarno-Hatta Airport took only two years to build, he notes.

But the positive picture is not always realistic. Bhakti says one area where Widodo is seen as making a difference is dealing with the bureaucracy, but he is not convinced. “If you look at the statement from Yuddy (Minister for Administrative and Bureaucratic Reform Yuddy Chrisnandi) he says he has been successful in bureaucratic reforms, but in my opinion the situation with the bureaucracy in Indonesia is getting worse, not getting better. They implement so many regulations that make public servants busy with writing and filling in forms. It’s like me, as a researcher, maybe 30% of my time is spent filling in forms.”

The rigidity of bureaucratic procedure remains untouched. A person like Bhakti, as a public servant, cannot write directly to a minister. While he can use personal channels to send messages, for others there is no way of getting around the system. An Echelon II official can’t send a letter to a Echelon I official in another department – it has to go up the bureaucratic ladder in his or her own department first, then be transmitted across sectoral boundaries. That provides plenty of space for misunderstanding, obfuscation and delays.

Impact on policy

The positive view of the achievements of some of Widodo’s ministers is contrasted by conflict between various ministers. The most recent example concerns the development of the Masela gas block in eastern Indonesian. Minister for Energy and Mineral Resources Sudirman Said and upstream regulator SKK Migas had already signed off on an offshore processing system; Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs Rizal Ramli – who entered the cabinet in the August reshuffle – insisted that building onshore facilities would be better for the country, pointing to the potential for a major downstream industrial cluster on an island such as Aru, currently one of the least developed parts of the country.

Widodo was finally forced to step in, ruling for Ramli’s argument. Matthew Busch, a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, in an article in that university’s website East Asia Forum, describes this as just another act in the stage show of Jokowi, man of the people.

“Jokowi’s decision to act only after a prolonged period of instability shows his instinct for the theatre, rather than mechanics, of governance. A similar 2015 decision on the Mahakam gas project followed comparable political infighting and left much unclear and no useful vision for resolution,” he wrote. “Even the rolling ‘reform packages’ have tended towards vague and obscure changes, with slow implementation making them much more of a marketing exercise than an economic program.”

It looks good for Jokowi to be supporting development in eastern Indonesia even though he must be aware that, given the delay in the project and the likely higher cost plus an excess of gas in the region, the project might never happen. As Busch states, “Masela risks becoming a white elephant.”

Receptive audience

The public seems to be happy with the way Widodo is telling his story, whatever the facts are. Results of a survey conducted by Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting released on April 17 found that 72% of respondents were happy with the Widodo government. That compares with a 74% approval rating at the beginning of his term of office, but which fell to only 55% after nine months in office.

The poll, which surveyed 1,220 respondents across the country with a margin of error of 3.2%, also showed that 59% of respondents were happy with the performance of the government, the highest rate since June 2015. Asked if they believed the government was on the right track, 81.1% replied that it was. Infrastructure won most applause with 71% approving the government’s work in that area. Respondents said they weren’t happy with rising unemployment, the lack of available jobs, the level of poverty and the price of basic goods.

Commenting on the results, J. Kristiadi of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said the survey results represented an opportunity for Widodo to strengthen his leadership, not least by attacking corruption within the political parties.

Not a nice guy

Widodo, in some circles, has a reputation as a harsh character who is happy to tread those who help him into the dust when it suits him. Prabowo Subianto, who picked him out to contest the Jakarta gubernatorial contest with his Greater Indonesia Movement (Gerindra), then had to face him in the presidential election. While Widodo has kept on reasonable terms with Subianto, others he has no further need for have been left behind.

One report alludes to three political specialists from the University of Gadjah Mada who are said to have been critical in framing Widodo’s early successes. Once he’d made the presidential palace, he no longer took their calls, according to the report. The author of this report, Faisal Muhammad, stated that “For Jokowi, it’s so easy to promise anything without any feeling that he’s lying or that living up to the promise could cost him. He makes promises he has no chance of fulfilling. For him, making a promise is as simple as breathing. He is not concerned about demolishing the hopes of citizens.”

One of those unrealistic promises was made in Bangka-Belitung province in June last year. Told about low commodity prices, he promised that he would take steps to raise the price of palm oil, rubber and tin. He must have known that all three are governed by international markets. A move has been made on rubber, with major producers Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand agreeing to try to push global prices up, but such pacts have not worked in the past. The people of Bangka and Belitung who were waiting for their incomes to rise will by now have been sorely disappointed. For Widodo, it was a cheap trick to push the problem to one side.

When Widodo went to the US in October, he was ‘forced’ to rush back to attend to the forest fires and smoke haze troubling a large part of the country and severely annoying its neighbors. He’d been advised not to make the trip before he left but Widodo wasn’t giving up the chance to meet Barack Obama at the White House. And rushing back ‘urgently’ made good headlines in the Indonesian media, even though the crisis had been ongoing for some time.

Hendri Satrio, a specialist in political communication at Paramadina University, told news website Okezone that this was pure pencitraan, aimed at removing any doubts in the minds of the public that their president was on the job. Fortunately for the president, it started raining soon after he arrived back in the country.

When he visited the Anak Dalam tribe in Jambi in November and was photographed sitting on the ground talking to their leaders, critics alleged the photos that circulated had been staged, with the Anak Dalam ordered to take off their batik shirts and sit down with the president wearing only loin-cloths. Widodo promised the Anak Dalam free houses if they promised to end their nomadic lifestyles. No such houses have eventuated so far.

The picture below presents a list of promises made by Widodo and Purnama before the Jakarta gubernatorial election. While some can be considered a work in progress, the first, revitalization of high-density slum areas, has only been achieved by generous use of the bulldozer. But if this an example of stories that don’t reflect reality, some promises have been kept – free healthcare and education now having been elevated to national-level programs. So it’s unfair to accuse Widodo of being a merely empty shell.

Image Jokowi








All politicians make promises that they are unlikely to be able to meet but some are more devious than others. Widodo’s critics recall that when he was campaigning for the Jakarta governorship he promised to stay in the post for five full years to deal with the city’s problems. Instead, within two years he was sitting in the State Palace.

Countering challenges

Widodo is also proving that he’s adept at maneuvering. When photographs of Ani Yudhoyono, wife of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, started doing the rounds of social media amid talk of a possible presidential run for her in 2019, Widodo quickly made a visit to Hambalang, the proposed national sports center. The public was conveniently reminded that this was the project that saw a number of senior figures in Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party going to jail for long terms.

There is no chance that Widodo will meet his campaign promise to raise GDP growth to 7% per annum by the time his first term ends. That’s not a difficult problem to deal with: after all, it was the inaction of the Yudhoyono government as it basked in the commodities boom that led to many of the present problems. As a (former) outsider, Widodo will be able to blame all the insiders for the mess he inherited.

The way forward

Ikrar Nusa Bhakti believes Widodo is now engaged in cementing his power base. “He wants to become the sole commander. The commander of the TNI, the police and everyone. I believe that is starting to happen. The Armed Forces commander respects him… The president is becoming more mature. He needs to find a balance between being tough and subtle.”

A major test of Widodo’s capacity to stay in power for a second term will be his ability to utilize the political parties, Bhakti believes. There, he has to juggle his theoretical support base with the PDI-P and the potential of Golkar Party as the most efficient political machine in the country. But, Bhakti notes, “If he uses Golkar too obviously against PDI-P it could become problematic.”

“PDI-P has been an opposition party for most of the reform era and before that under Suharto. The style of PDI-P parliamentarians is still like oppositionists. Second, this party endorsed Jokowi to become the president, the mayor of Solo and the governor of Jakarta, but after 2014 only a few members of PDI-P have become ministers. The third point, if you mention Megawati, of course, she thinks she is the chairman of the party, she thinks she is more experienced in dealing with politics than Jokowi, who he is only a normal member of PDI-P.

“This kind of pyschological problem is still going on in PDI-P but Megawati now no longer makes any negative comments in public about the government. It’s quite different from last year, when Jokowi refused to appoint Budi Gunawan (who he had nominated as the next National Police chief only to be named a suspect for corruption by the Corruption Eradication Commission). Maybe there is a change in the political style, maybe Megawati tries to use an accomodative style with Jokowi. I believe Jokowi will use Golkar Party to balance PDI-P. But Golkar is very experienced at political engineering and he has to be careful in using them.”

The military and its representatives

In any Indonesian government, being on good terms with the military is essential. Stability is the glue that allows the country to move forward, and the military is also in the best position to undermine stability if it sees value in doing so. Widodo’s willingness to hand important positions to two senior retired generals – Luhut Panjaitan as Coordinating Minister for Politics, Security and Legal Affairs and Ryamizard Ryacudu as Defense Minister – has led to allegations that the military is running the government.

Bhakti believes that view is over-stated. “Quite honestly quite a few political blunders have been committed by Luhut Binsar Panjaitan. For example his statement about Papua, if young Papuans don’t want to accept a united country, they should go to the Pacific states. That’s one statement. The latest one was when he went to Fiji (in an attempt to influence the Melanesian Spearhead Group), this is still an old-style approach. This is nothing to do with government-to-government relationships anymore, this is people-to-people and organization-to-organization. They (Papuan groups) can push governments to talk to them. Now the Papuan people have their representatives. You know if we send Papuans to Australia, the United States or England they will not become Indonesians, they will be Papuans.”

But Luhut still has value for Widodo. “He is the most senior retired military general. He has a very good relationship with Jokowi. And Luhut is from (special forces group) Kopassus. Jokowi went to (Kopassus headquarters) Cijantung when they celebrated their birthday, and this is because to manage the military, the most important group in the military is Kopassus.” His conclusion is that Luhut is more used by Jokowi than the other way around.

Widodo has been prepared to provide concessions to the Army, the paramount power within TNI. That was demonstrated by the appointment of a new Army figure as TNI commander when, according to recent tradition, it should have been the turn of an Air Force officer.  “I don’t know what the recommendation was from Luhut when Jokowi appointed (Gatot) Nurmyanto (as TNI commander) rather than the Air Force chief. This is to maintain the stability in Indonesia. The group that can destabilize Indonesia is the Army. The president has to manage his relationship with the Army.”

At the police, Widodo will face a test later this year when current National Police chief Badrodin Haiti retires. “Many people believe Tito (Karnavian) will be pushed to become the National Police commander in December this year,” said Bhakti, who said he personally believes that Karnarvian is too young, and appointing him over the top of a number of more senior officers would cause trouble. Still, he said, if it did happen Karnarvian would be a man to watch as a future president. At the moment however, he concluded, “the police are in a mess.”

Scores on the board

In line with Concord Strategic’s view of Widodo’s performance, the president gets a passing grade in Bhakti’s view. He points to a recent picture doing the rounds of social media comparing Sukarno, Suharto, Yudhoyono and Widodo. “With Sukarno, there were many national monuments, Suharto you can see Taman Mini but during SBY’s period you only see songs. With Jokowi, you have the MRT (Jakarta’s mass rapid transport system, finally getting off the ground after 20 years of delays).”

“With electricity for instance, you can see what is being done, but if you ask me about the price of, for example, copper or rubber or coal, of course this does not only depend on the national government’s policy, it depends on the international situation. For the current government there are problems in finding money. For investment, this is not only pencitraan, I think the government is trying hard.”

While to a degree Widodo’s success as president will depend on external factors, led by global economic trends and particularly by the relationship with China, the former mayor of Solo has demonstrated that he is up to the job of running the country. The question that had to be asked about him from the beginning of his campaign – is he capable? – is now being answered positively.

The picture is not entirely upbeat, but after 18 months in office, Widodo is demonstrating a capacity to deal with the multiple currents that surge through Indonesia’s political landscape and manage the military and the political parties. That he has trouble in keeping his cabinet ministers on the same page reflects the realities of a country that has yet to come to a firm conclusion about what sort of policy position it wants to adopt – a liberal capitalist model or a xenophobic inward-looking economy.

Much work remains. Not least among the continuing tasks confronting the president is to trim the power of the bureaucrats.  Widodo may have worked out a way of living successfully with the Army and TNI in general, but he has yet to demonstrate that he is fully in charge of running the country rather than a herd of faceless officials determined to defend their own privileges and power. If Widodo does win re-election in 2019, that problem is still likely to be on top of his list of unfinished business.