President Joko Widodo’s Image Problems

The opposition’s weakness means that the Indonesian president’s recent problems carry few political costs – for the moment.

Students cover their faces with Indonesian President Joko Widodo during a demonstration
Students cover their faces with Indonesian President Joko Widodo during a demonstration against a controversial new law passed last week which critics fear will favour investors at the expense of labour rights and the environment in Banda Aceh on October 14, 2020. (Photo: Chaideer MAHYUDDIN, AFP)

Max Lane

26 January 2021

Last year, President Joko Widodo’s image as a populist “close-to-the-people” political leader suffered a series of blows. 2020 was marked by regular demonstrations protesting many of these issues, especially the Job Creation Law as well as a constant critical tone by influential media outlets, especially the Tempo news group.

His image suffered from his signing into law legislating a weakening of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), the inadequate and seemingly uncaring handling of the Covid-19 pandemic as it steadily worsened, and the promotion of the Law for Employment Creation which weakened labour rights and environmental protections.

The KPK arrested two key cabinet ministers for corruption, including the Minister for Social Welfare, who was accused of corrupting money for welfare beneficiaries and was a member of the president’s party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP). The sudden nomination of one of his sons and his son-in-law to stand as candidates for mayoral positions in Solo and Medan provided his critics with even more ammunition. President Widodo began to be talked about as just another dynastic political empire builder.

On 23 December, the president took a major step to counter his worsening image. He reshuffled his cabinet, replacing the two arrested ministers. The popular mayor of Surabaya, Tri Rismaharani (Risma), was appointed the new Minister for Social Affairs. She is perceived as being corruption-free and without personal ambition. Sandiaga Salahudin Uno (Sandi), from the Gerindra party and Prabowo Subianto’s vice-presidential running mate in the last election, was appointed as Minister of Tourism and Creative Economy. Sandi’s appointment completed the process of co-opting Widodo’s rivals into the government.

Yaqut Cholil Quomas (Yaqut) was appointed as Minister of Religious Affairs. Yaqut is from the Nahdatul Ulama organisation and the National Awakening Party (PKB) that are key components of the ruling coalition. He is from a wing that is seen as being less puritan, more respectful of religious minorities and more critical of overly fundamentalist outlooks.

The government also took steps to improve public perceptions of its vaccination policy. Reports had circulated in the last quarter of 2020 that the vaccine would only be available to these enrolled in the national health insurance scheme. There were also reports – later claimed to be hoaxes – that the President himself would be vaccinated only after the vaccination program had been underway for a certain period, resulting in the perception that he did not fully trust the vaccine. In the same month of the cabinet reshuffle, the government announced that the president would be the first to be vaccinated – which happened on January 13 – and that the vaccine would be available free to all citizens without conditions.

Since December, these presidential image rehabilitation efforts have been partly thwarted by developments on more than one front. There remains a lack of clarity on how long the vaccination programme will take. “It is free – if ever we get it” has become a theme among critical social media commentary. Since December also, there has been a rapid increase in the number of reported Covid cases and deaths, with tightened partial lockdowns and other restrictions introduced. Widodo’s 8 January statement, “Praise be to God, Indonesia has not had to go into lockdown”, despite experts having long called for such lockdowns as a preventive measure, sparked a surge of negative social media commentary. The president attracted more criticism when he stated that major flooding in Kalimantan was due to heavy rains, ignoring the impact of massive deforestation in the area.

Since December, these presidential image rehabilitation efforts have been partly thwarted by developments on more than one front.

While the president and the PDIP could take some pleasure in the handsome wins for his son, Gibran Rakabuming, in Solo and his son-in-law, Bobby Nasution, in Medan, these wins strengthened the undesired dynastic image. A decline in voter turn-out in Solo, where Widodo’s son stood as the candidate, has been attributed to an aversion to dynastic politics. Media reports highlight the massive spending by these two candidates, compared to their rivals, further strengthening the dynastic imagery.

Neither did the corruption scandal around the arrested Minister for Social Affairs disappear. In January, Tempo online newspaper reported that two PDIP members of parliament also were being investigated for involvement.

Not only has government policy come under criticism. So has the chairperson of the PDIP, Megawati Sukarnoputri, who blamed the spread of Covid-19 and the Kalimantan floods on the ‘dirty’ behaviour of the masses rather than any government failure.

Widodo’s image as an effective president and “man of the people” leader has begun to erode. The government has made changes clearly aimed at trying to halt this erosion before his still good poll ratings reflect this. One anti-erosion advantage the president has is that he has not faced any large, national scale political opposition, either from within or outside the parliament.

2020 revealed that the organised campaigners on these issues only come from what can be called the social justice wing of civil society – human rights and environmental NGOs, student activists and the smaller more activist trade unions – and some media, such as the Tempo group. There is no serious parliamentary opposition, apart from the small Islamist PKS party that focuses on other issues. The president has successfully integrated the larger social organisations, including the biggest trade unions, into the governing coalition, thereby muting their criticism. Extra-parliamentary opposition remains confined to the relatively small social justice wing of civil society and, on the opposite side of politics, the small extreme fundamentalist Islamist sector.

The president’s image is eroding, but, for the moment, he faces no serious political challenge because of this.

Dr Max Lane is Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

ISEAS Commentary — 2021/20

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.