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Author: Editorial Board, ANU

It says a lot about Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s extraordinary mastery over Indonesian politics that year in, year out analyses of what’s driving domestic developments in Southeast Asia’s biggest economy all lead back to the priorities and interests of its president.

Even amid a once-in-a-generation crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, the president’s interests are still the primary locomotive of Indonesian political developments, concludes Greg Fealy in this week’s lead article .

‘Jokowi is determined to avoid being a lame-duck president in his second term. The delays and disruption that COVID-19 has wrought on his ambitious development agenda have intensified his resolve to maximise his authority and limit sources of resistance’, says Fealy. These sources of resistance have been located within the Indonesian political elite, in the form of formerly opposition parties that the administration has co-opted into the government coalition, as well as in civil society groups who now ‘admit that they feel under greater pressure from the state than at any time in the post-Suharto era’.

But the clock is ticking on Jokowi’s presidency. Indonesia’s electoral commission has set out the schedule for the 2024 elections that will see a new president and fresh local and national legislatures elected on 14 February before the presidential handover next October. Local polls slated for 27 November that year will also for the first time synchronise elections for hundreds of provincial governors and local mayors and district heads (bupati) across the archipelago.

One new jurisdiction, though, seems unlikely to join them in this massive exercise in democracy — the as-yet unnamed new province that will be home to Nusantara, Indonesia’s proposed new capital city. Under the law authorising the move of the capital city from Jakarta to the island of Kalimantan, the local governor will in practice be appointed by the president rather than elected directly by its new and existing residents.

It’s a small point, but one that’s nonetheless of a piece with how the new capital city project is shaping up as a monument to Jokowi’s self-image as a kind of benevolent technocrat-populist, deputised by the voters to cut through political and bureaucratic paralysis and get things done.

In the case of Nusantara, the techno-populist machine has malfunctioned. From the beginning the new capital project has been marked by a lack of transparency and rigour. The government hasn’t put a sound case to the public as to why this US$35 billion megaproject is a smart idea — and if so, why the opportunity cost, in terms of the resources that might be otherwise put towards pressing development needs, is one worth paying.

The problem — from the government’s perspective — is that they don’t have to. As Fealy writes, Jokowi shored up his political position in 2021 ‘by enlarging and solidifying his ruling coalition, which added an eighth party, giving it a sweeping majority of 82 per cent of seats in the national parliament and leaving just two opposition parties’. One of these, former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party, was the target of a botched takeover attempt by Jokowi’s own chief of staff in early 2021.

The impulse towards co-opting potential political spoilers to ensure the efficiency of government is understandable. It’s been an important part of Jokowi’s being able to ram through his Omnibus Law on Job Creation in 2020, and in getting the Nusantara boondoggle rubber-stamped by parliament.

One worry has been that Jokowi and his allies are getting a little too comfortable with the status quo. There has been constant speculation that pro-government parties might use the COVID-19 crisis as the pretext for a constitutional amendment that would extend Jokowi’s term through to 2027. With the logistical preparations for a February 2024 election now underway, this threat has faded — but Fealy reminds us that with Jokowi by far the most popular politician in the country, a constitutional change still can’t be ruled out if the president and his allies change their minds. Some 40 per cent of voters appear to back the idea.

Assuming the election proceeds as scheduled, it will still take place under rules that will limit the choices available to voters. Candidates for the presidency are required to gain the nomination of a party or a coalition of parties that won a certain level of support at the previous legislative election — 20 per cent of votes, or 25 per cent of seats, to be exact.

It’s a significant barrier to new entrants from outside the Jakarta political establishment if they aren’t on good terms with party bosses. Jokowi was in 2014 when he gained a presidential nomination on the back of a successful local political career. In 2024, Fealy observes, the need to secure party support may make it difficult for a set of popular governors to follow in Jokowi’s footsteps if administration insiders are determined to secure nominations for themselves.

The presidential nomination threshold is ostensibly there for a good reason: to make sure a presidential candidate has sufficient support in the parliament to govern effectively. If it’s used tactically to limit the scope for non-party outsiders to contest the presidency, then maybe it’s aiding a kind of political rent-seeking by party insiders — threatened by new competitors instead of just selling a better political product they concoct regulations that structure the market to their advantage.

On the other hand, the insider parliamentary selection process also provides a buffer and some protection against outsider populist presidential demagogues who’ve been a prominent feature of politics in new democracies in Latin America and elsewhere — and even in old ones further North.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

The post Indonesia begins to look beyond Jokowi first appeared on News JU.

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