Assessing the candidates (part I): Jokowi’s Mission (should he choose to accept it)

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Irawan Ronodipuro
INDEPENDENT OBSERVER

IO – When Jokowi first appeared on the national scene as a presidential candidate, his profile as an outsider and fresh face in politics were assets with an electorate tired of elitism.   His promises of reform—to lead the way for Indonesia in what he called a ‘mental revolution’—were typical of the large crop of anti-establishment politicians running for higher office in other democracies.  And, this is precisely how he won the election—by presenting himself as a down-to-earth and honest newcomer who wanted to ‘do good’ for the common Indonesian, Jokowi tapped into voter frustrations and lack of trust in the political old guard.

That was then.  More than four years later, Jokowi is now part of the elite.  He will be facing an electorate who will, above all else, assess his achievements—or lack thereof—in office.  Imagery and even more promises will no longer suffice to win over the hearts and minds of voters.  Simply put, the April 2019 election will be a national referendum on his performance as president.

Until now, it seems Jokowi does not understand the public will not be swayed by simplistic exercises in marketing.  One example is his choice of the septuagenarian cleric Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate.  Jokowi supporters in elite circles believe it was  necessary in order to inoculate the president against attacks from Islamic hardliners.

Shortly thereafter, when the president was widely criticized for his vice-presidential pick of Amin as someone being too old and out of touch with younger voters, a team behind Jokowi released a bizarre video with scenes that could have been easily mistaken for an Indonesian variation on the Hollywood blockbuster film Mission Impossible.  Showing an actor resembling Jokowi doing incredible stunts on his motorcycle, the video went viral on the internet—entertaining yes, but hardly the sort of advertisement that voters would expect from a serious candidate for the presidency.

There are many different interpretations about Jokowi’s start of a campaign ‘strategy’, if one could call it a strategy at all.  Perhaps he believes voters don’t really care about or can digest the sort of serious campaign issues that most presidential hopefuls talk about.  Or, maybe he thinks by creating slick videos he will manage to divert people’s attention away from his faults as president.  More than likely it is for both reasons.
Jokowi’s real Mission Impossible will come when voters think about the president’s promises for a better and more prosperous country.  How will he answer when those promises are brought up in the debates?

Many of Jokowi’s missteps, bad policies and display of poor judgment in office have been already covered at length in this column.   But they are worth recalling as Indonesia prepares for the presidential campaign.

One policy area worthy of more critical debate is infrastructure.   A drastic increase in spending on infrastructure projects—which has been trumpeted ad nauseam by his administration as a great success—has not been accompanied by proper financial controls and audits.  Voters should therefore be skeptical about whether or not their hard-earned tax money has been used properly—this is a particularly pressing issue because the vast majority of infrastructure projects under this administration have been awarded to state-owned enterprises which, as any casual observer of Indonesian politics knows, has been long riddled by corruption.

Jokowi enthusiasts also are eager to give the president and his economics cabinet high marks for macroeconomic policies.  This is also debatable.  Growth rates of five percent is far below for what is needed to generate a healthy increase in employment opportunities.  The government also likes to tell us the Jokowi presidency has led to price stability, but when one takes a closer look at soaring prices for food it is evident there is trickery behind the official inflation statistics.

When it comes to welfare policies, Jokowi will remind voters of his administration’s issuing ‘smart cards’ that give poor Indonesians subsidized access to health care and education.  So much is true.  It has also come at a tremendous cost for taxpayers, and so it is worth posing probing questions about an equally if not more important issue:  the quality of our schools and hospitals.  So far, Jokowi and his cabinet has done little to improve the education of Indonesian children or take the necessary steps to ensure better medical treatment.  This bad situation is reflected in the fact most wealthy Indonesians still prefer to send their children to private schools and opt for Singaporean hospitals when they are ill.

Not only have Indonesians found they are not better off economically under Jokowi’s presidency, they have also seen their president on the motorcycle lead the way in the erosion of democratic norms and civil liberties.    In just over four years, Jokowi’s stunts have included the undermining of our freedom of speech, human rights and fair elections:  Innocents who have dared criticize the president have found themselves in jail; suspected drug dealers and street criminals have been shot on sight by the police with the blessings of Jokowi; and regulations governing elections have been tweaked to give the incumbent an upper hand over the opposition.

Voters’ list of grievances with Jokowi’s presidency is a long one, something even Tom Cruise would find difficult to deal with.  And like it or not, Jokowi will have no other choice other than to accept the challenge.