What’s next for Indonesia?

What can we realistically expect in President Joko Widodo’s second term?

What’s next for Indonesia?

As electoral quick count results by most pollsters confirm President Joko Widodo’s re-election with a
victory margin of around 54.5 percent, the fear that he would only be a one-term president has been
effectively dashed. Yet, there is little doubt that his victory is a narrow one, given that it is not even
two percentage points higher than his 2014 win. His rival, Prabowo Subianto, has so far refused to
concede defeat, going as far as unilaterally declaring his own victory three times.

Against such a polarizing start to his renewed mandate, what can we realistically expect from
President Joko’s second and last term? During his first term, President Joko was seen as weak on the rule of law and minority rights, not to mention unfulfilled promises in tackling past human rights abuses.

The acid attack against Novel Baswedan, an investigator for the Corruption Eradication Commission
(KPK), allegedly masterminded by high-ranking members of law enforcement, has languished since it
occurred in 2017. Religious minority groups such as Ahmadi Muslims and Christians have increasingly been targeted with discriminative practices which have gone unchallenged.

The government also failed to show real political will to redress past human rights abuse cases,
notably the 1965 to 1966 massacre against those accused of being Communists, the assassination of
human rights activist Munir and the 1998 Riots.

It is often said that a second term president, unfettered by the need to seek re-nomination, may be
motivated to initiate bold policies and reforms since he or she, in theory, has nothing to lose. It is in
this spirit that human rights groups have called on President Joko to lose no time in addressing what
he did not in his first term.

If the past is any guide, the prospects of human rights prioritized by a second-term president are not
great. Apart from President Joko, the only second-term president the country has had since direct
presidential election was instituted in 2004 is Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), his predecessor.

However, during SBY’s second term between 2009 and 2014, he did not end up tackling human
rights issues or the rule of law in a more principled way than his previous term. To be fair, he did
bequeath other things as part of his legacy, such as the 2009 Mining and Minerals Law which sought
to restructure the way Indonesia’s natural resources were exported, and the creation of Indonesia’s
first universal health coverage the BPJS in 2013.

When President Joko leaves office in 2024, he will have already left his important legacy in the
infrastructure projects from his first term. The question is what he will leave behind from his second

The snag is he may be in comparatively a weaker position than SBY ever was politically. SBY was
elected in both 2004 and 2009 with 60 percent of the vote, a significantly higher percentage point
than President Joko’s.

SBY also had a firmer grip on the House of Representatives than President Joko, mainly because he
was the founder and remained in charge of Partai Demokrat, the ruling party within his coalition
during his second term. By contrast, President Joko does not have a political party to command, and
has to rely on the good will and cooperation of the party bosses within his coalition, chiefly Megawati Sukarnoputri, chairwoman of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P).

As a last-term president, he may also find the parties within his coalition too busy jockeying for the
2024 elections, including pushing their own presidential candidates to the fore. As a popular leader,
President Joko may yield some influence on who will run for president after him, but the decision
will ultimately rest with the party bosses.

As such, while the president may be willing to put principled policies and reforms into action, the
parties behind him may not support any legislative program which may compromise their own
agenda for 2024, especially contentious issues like human and minority rights.
The president may have better luck with limited economic reforms, which in all likelihood will be his
top priority, as during his first term.

During his campaign, he made promises to focus on developing Indonesia’s human resources if re-
elected. Given that his administration failed to produce the promised 7 percent GDP growth ─ having
to make do with 5 percent on average between 2014 and 2018 ─ it is only sensible to assume that he
will try to leave the economy in better shape than it was during his first term.

A good indicator of the direction of President Joko’s second administration is what he will do or not
do to his cabinet, once the Electoral Commission (KPU) has officially declared him the winner in the
presidential election, which is expected to take place in May at the latest.

Technically, the current cabinet lasts until the presidential inauguration in October, but it is within
President Joko’s prerogative to announce a new lineup once his victory has officially been declared.
Starting with a fresh cabinet as soon as possible and sacking under-performing ministers would be a
statement of efficiency and resolve, not to mention giving new ministers extra time to adjust to their

But it may also be unpopular. Harking back to his predecessor, SBY chose to wait out his cabinet’s
natural lifespan to expire before announcing a new one, presumably to guard against possible rancor
by ousted ministers. It will be of interest which course President Joko will take in this regard.

Another front to look out for is foreign affairs. Save his attendance at regional and international
summits, President Joko has shown very little interest in foreign policy, leaving it largely to the
Minister of Foreign Affairs Retno Marsudi. In this, he is not unlike President Soeharto, who also left
his Minister of Foreign Affairs Adam Malik to manage the country’s diplomacy, at least in his early
years in office.

A clear example of Minister Retno’s centrality in Indonesia’s foreign policy drive was her crucial and
driving role in securing a seat as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the 2019-
2020 session. Although the minister cited the president’s help in lobbying other nations’ leaders for
support, it was no doubt her own initiative.

However, President Joko’s disinterest in foreign policy ─ unless when it helps accentuate his
patriotism ─ is in marked contrast to the ambitions his predecessor SBY displayed in international
affairs. It was during his tenure, for instance, that Indonesia officially joined the G20. It will be
interesting to see whether President Joko will develop a flair for foreign affairs during his second

The polarizing atmosphere surrounding his second term in office will eventually dissipate, partly
because his opponents know full well he will not run again in 2024. Even so, it remains to be seen
whether he will devote his last term to reforms and fulfilling past promises. Political hurdles aside,
let us hope that leaving a legacy he can be proud of will be a strong enough motivating factor.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer and political commentator based in East Java Province.

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