Jakarta governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo announced on March 15 that he will run for president of Indonesia this July under the banner of the Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). The announcement followed months of waiting for party chair and former president Megawati Sukarnoputri to give her approval. Jokowi has consistently polled far ahead of all other presidential hopefuls, and now that he has the green light from PDI-P, he is in the best position to take the helm of the world’s third largest democracy.
Many voters see Jokowi as a much needed bringer of change who can help solve Indonesia’s problems. They seem him as young, not beholden to the old political elite, and free of corruption. But Jokowi is not the radical herald of change that many, both Indonesian citizens and foreign investors, hope he will be.
A Jokowi presidency probably will not alter the status quo of Indonesian foreign and economic policy. His unprecedented popularity is not derived from representing a drastically new ideology. Instead, Indonesian voters like Jokowi simply because they trust him and he has proven relatively effective. They do not want a president who will radically alter policy; they want one who can follow through on that policy, and do so transparently and without corruption. Jokowi, if elected, will be beholden to a change-averse electorate looking for an honest populist. He will not be able to change too much too fast.
Even if Jokowi wanted to bring about great change, he will be limited by the political system in which he must operate. The first limit to the president’s power is the People’s Representative Council (DPR), the lower house of Indonesia’s parliament, which commands a disproportionate amount of power compared to other branches of government. For instance, Indonesia’s president has no veto power and bills passed by the DPR automatically become law after 30 days regardless of presidential support or opposition. Despite leading an eight party coalition accounting for 423 of the 560 seats in parliament, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been plagued by a disagreeable DPR that has frequently prevented high level appointments and blocked or watered down legislation.
The efficacy of Indonesian presidents is also limited by decentralization. The dozens of provinces, hundreds of regencies/cities, and thousands of districts each have their own legislatures, which are far more accountable to their immediate constituencies than to the central government. Jokowi will not be able to steamroll regional leaders to bring about change that is not in their immediate interests. Additionally, a savvy and independent media, coupled with Indonesia’s high rate of social media use, make rocking the boat a more public and risky prospect.
Jokowi will bring some change, but it will most likely be incremental and highly targeted. He is affectionately referred to as “Mr. Fix It,” a name indicative of what should be expected from a Jokowi presidency. He will not introduce radical new foreign policy or turn around Indonesia’s protectionist and inward-looking trade policy. He can be expected to resist fully integrating Indonesia into the ASEAN Economic Community or keep the country out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Instead he will likely focus on grass roots social issues and seek to “fix” underperforming services and institutions. He will try to inject Indonesia’s grossly underfunded national healthcare system with money, improve national taxation efficiency, further roll back the bloated fuel subsidy, and promote desperately needed infrastructure projects. All of this is necessary, and it might help attract new investment, but it will not change Indonesia overnight.
Those expecting a radical reformer will likely be disenchanted with Jokowi. But he is just what the Indonesian people want—an honest leader who can do a better job of running the system that Indonesia already has.