Indonesia's President Joko Widodo salutes during the country's 73rd Independence Day celebrations at the presidential palace in Jakarta on Aug. 17. Questions are being asked about the former man of the people's real commitment to democracy. (Photo by Sonny Tumbelaka/AFP)
Joko Widodo was welcomed as a fresh breeze when he stood for election as president of Indonesia in 2014. A stranger to the elites that had long dominated politics, he became a media darling by talking to ordinary people in the street, in what quickly became known as blusukan, roaming around.
Now, facing re-election next April, questions are being asked about the former man of the people's real commitment to democracy. Critics are asking if he is responsible for a more authoritarian style of governance or whether he even cares. A second term of office could see more of his no-nonsense leadership style.
The signs of a change in direction have been building for some time. While Jokowi, as the president is universally known, still performs blusukan, it's now carefully stage-managed. Critics have long argued that his public performances, whether acting the rocker on a motorbike or dressed in Javanese traditional garb, are all designed to achieve maximum public appeal.
No-one can criticize him for being popular, but the reality behind the public image is increasingly that of the tough, even ruthless, leader who doesn't waste his energy on what he considers the non-essentials.
Jokowi's entry into national level politics was like a storybook rise to fame. He was successful as the mayor of Solo, a small city in Central Java where he first started to develop his image by taking walks through the markets, listening to the gripes of shoppers and traders.
In 2012 he vied successfully for the position of governor of Jakarta, with his blusukan tactics successful in wooing an electorate tired of the staid incumbent. Then, within just two years, he was in the state palace, running the country.
At first, he appeared awkward in his public appearances. In international forums, he felt his role was to sell the country as an investment destination, not as the world's fourth most populous nation. Since then, he's smartened up his act, winning laughter and applause at high-level conferences with well-scripted comments about issues like the China-U.S. trade threat. At home, the nice guy gloves appear to be off, as he becomes increasingly confident.
In his time in office, the president has cooperated increasingly closely with the military. Initially, that was seen as a reflection of his lack of experience with men in uniform. Now, it's a more conscious partnership.
In a recent move, the army was ordered to check on the presence of foreigners across the country, and to watch for any emergence of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). There's little evidence that there is any real possibility of that happening; the party was banned after the attempted coup of 1965.
A check on foreigners is a response to rumors that millions of Chinese nationals have infiltrated the country. While neither plank of the army's mission appears to have much substance, it allows it to activate its assets at every level of the country, just as in Suharto's New Order era, and potentially feed intelligence back to the generals — and the president — in Jakarta.
The police are another close ally. They have pursued critics of all stripes under the draconian Information and Electronics Transaction (ITE) Law. Initially designed to protect against fraudulent internet-based transactions, it has been increasingly used to penalize people for spreading defamatory comments electronically. Many such cases have involved criticism of the president.
Jokowi has taken a no-nonsense approach to policy. He has presided over the ouster of most long-term foreign contractors in the oil and gas business by state energy company Pertamina. At the State-Owned Enterprises Ministry, close ally Rini Soemarno has led the domination of the country's massive infrastructure program by state-owned companies, earning the ire of the private sector.
Human rights are increasingly sidelined. There is widespread discrimination against LGBT groups, Shariah-based by-laws are common in the provinces, and Jokowi appears to have forgotten his election campaign promises to look into previous human rights abuses.
With all of these strongman tactics, Jokowi's "man of the people" image is getting a makeover. The Economist Intelligence Unit's (EIU) Democracy Index continues to mark down Indonesia's democracy. In 2018, it fell 20 places to 68th, sliding from "flawed democracy" toward "authoritarian."
Australia's Indonesia-watchers are increasingly critical. As early as late 2015, Edward Aspinall, professor of politics at the Australian National University (ANU), was writing about a "new nationalism" in Indonesia.
Immediately after his inauguration wrote Aspinall, "Jokowi's government adopted a host of new nationalist measures. These included new import restrictions, such as a ban on the import of rice alongside a proclaimed goal of achieving complete food self‐sufficiency, but also covering such acts as the much publicized burning of foreign fishing boats captured in Indonesian waters and the execution of persons, mostly foreigners, convicted of narcotics crimes."
Another ANU Indonesia-watcher, Thomas P. Power, writing recently in the Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies, is more critical. "The latter part of Jokowi's first term has seen a downturn in the quality of Indonesian democracy, associated with the continued mainstreaming and legitimation of a conservative and anti-pluralistic brand of political Islam; the partisan manipulation of key institutions of state; and the increasingly open repression and disempowerment of political opposition," he wrote.
But does the public care? A study by the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), "Intolerance and Radicalism in Indonesia," released on Dec. 4, asked 1,800 respondents across the country what they thought of the tougher line from the government. Some 67 percent said they agreed with the government's efforts to "discipline" mass organizations that employed violence. Democratic freedoms appear to have little appeal in Jokowi's Indonesia.
The prospects look good for his re-election. The latest credible poll saw little change in the electability of Jokowi and his sole opponent Prabowo Subianto. The Indonesian Survey Circle (LSI) put Jokowi at 53.2 percent and Subianto at 31.2 percent, with 15.6 percent undecided. Some are even asking if Subianto is really serious about campaigning.
Keith Loveard is an Indonesia-based journalist and analyst.