Jokowi’s ‘Carrie Lam’ Moment

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Rizal Ramli Former Coordinating Minister for Economy (2000-2001) and Minister of Finance (2000)

IO – Make no doubt about it.  There are tipping points in politics, a moment when the impossible suddenly seems possible. For Jokowi, when he was declared the winner of the presidential election, it would have been ludicrous to think he would be facing off with the largest mass protests the country has seen since 1998. 

It would also have been inconceivable to think the president would get into such hot waters that his political survival would be endangered.

Yet here we are, only six months later, where a man once declared as one of the world’s most popular leaders is now standing at a critical juncture in his presidency, where a misstep with the protestors could severely damage his legitimacy, or worse.

Before pondering the possible scenarios on what could happen next, it would be instructive to take a closer look at Hong Kong, which has been rocked by protests since June and show no signs of abating.

Starting last June, after the government of Hong Kong introduced a bill that would allow criminal suspects to potentially be extradited to China, mass protests erupted, demanding Chief Executive Carrie Lam have the bill withdrawn.  At first, Lam said she would indefinitely delay the bill, which only angered the protestors.  As the months passed by, the protests grew even larger and more violent.  By early September, when Lam finally withdrew the bill, it was too late–the movement’s list of demands had grown to include amnesty for all arrested protestors, an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality, universal suffrage in elections for the chief executive and legislative council, and in some parts of the movement a demand that Lam resign from office.

The lesson for Jokowi in the case of Hong Kong is clear.  Because Lam delayed withdrawing the bill for three months, the protest movement snowballed from being about a single issue to numerous ones.  In other words, the extradition bill served as a trigger that led to a much larger array of grievances and demands to surface, up to a point where it is now nearly impossible to reach a peaceful resolution.

Jokowi must keep Hong Kong in mind if he wants to avoid having a Carrie Lam moment.  If he continues to delay issuing a presidential decree on KPK and does not take a clear stance in opposition to the draft bill on the criminal code, the protests will more than likely mount as they did in Hong Kong.  And, if the police persist in using violence, Jokowi should know that this will only anger people and make them even more sympathetic with the protestors.

Will there be a time when protestors demand the resignation of Jokowi?  Such a possibility should not be dismissed, and the longer he delays taking action to appease protestors, the more likely people will stop seeing Jokowi as  part of the problem but rather the main problem.  

Jokowi should realize if he does experience a Carrie Lam moment, where the dynamics of the protests goes beyond the tipping point, it will be very hard for him to recover.  He should be mindful also that there is an important difference between  Lam and himself.  Lam survives in office in spite of her complete loss of legitimacy only because she has the backing of the Chinese Communist Party.  But for Jokowi, if push comes to shove and protestors demand he resign from office, will he have solid support within the ruling coalition for him to stay rather than leave?

Of course, deciding to side with the protestors is no easy task.  Jokowi must carefully weigh the political risks if he meets the demands of the protestors.  Doing so would undoubtedly anger elements inside the ruling coalition.  There is also no guarantee that issuing a presidential decree will settle the matter, for the new House of Representatives could decide, as they have the authority, not to ratify the changes.  If that were to happen, we will be back to square one, but with one important difference: instead of protestors focusing their anger on the president, the House of Representatives will find itself on the firing line.

Jokowi should find neither of his options to be appealing.  If he dismisses the protestors, he becomes severely weakened and will be seen as an enemy of the people.  If he sides with the protestors, he wins back his popularity but becomes an enemy of the elite, and he could easily find himself being undermined by the House of Representatives.