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William Pesek: Widodo – Indonesia’s Obama, in more ways than one

Joko Widodo hasn’t even been sworn in as Indonesia’s president yet, and already he’s a failure.

No, I’m not betting against the young outsider who, Barack Obama-style, rode a wave of excitement and voter enthusiasm to the top job in the world’s fourth most-populous nation. Regional leaders and investors alike want Widodo to succeed in raising the living standards of his 250 million citizens, 26 per cent of whom are under 15. But it’s worth tempering wildly-inflated expectations for the incoming president, given how determined his opposition appears to be.

No one would understand Widodo’s dilemma better than the US president to whom he’s often compared. The parallels with Obama are striking. Both are self-made men from modest upbringings. Both energised a new, wired generation of voters with their charisma and common-man appeal. Each has had to overcome mean-spirited smear campaigns: Obama for allegedly being a Muslim, Widodo for allegedly not being one. And like Obama, when he was inaugurated in 2009, the relatively inexperienced Widodo confronts grave doubts about whether he has the strength and the skill to transform Indonesia’s status quo.

The evidence thus far is worrying. The man Widodo defeated in the July elections – former Suharto-era general Prabowo Subianto – at first refused to concede. Ever since, he’s seemed bent on undercutting Widodo in any way he can. Subianto has cobbled together a coalition in parliament that outnumbers the president’s supporters. Even before Monday’s presidential inauguration, the legislature changed rules to allow that opposition coalition to dominate key committee posts and leadership positions. In the most striking blow, legislators voted to overturn the system of direct local elections established after the fall of Suharto in 1998 – the very reform that allowed a maverick like Widodo, a former furniture salesman, to become a small-town mayor and then governor of Jakarta before running for president.

Subianto’s petulance brings to mind Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. In 2010, McConnell flatly declared that his party’s priority would be to hold Obama to one term. That meant scuttling the president’s every priority, no matter how punitive the consequences for the American people. In Indonesia, many in the opposition are driven as well by fears that Widodo’s reforms and anti-graft efforts might threaten the perks and privileges they’ve traditionally enjoyed. Much of the Suharto-era system remained intact even after the dictator’s ouster and is reasserting its power now. Or, as the Economist magazine put it in a recent headline: “The Empire Strikes Back”.

Prabowo histrionics could have their uses. Much as Obama often succeeds by stepping back and letting the Republicans trip over their own ideological militancy, the popular Widodo might want to let his enemies score some own goals. The reversal of direct elections, and earlier efforts to make it harder to pursue corruption charges against parliament members, are highly unpopular with voters. “His style is far more appealing to Indonesians, and Prabowo is wearing out his welcome as a sore loser and spoiler,” says Jeff Kingston, head of Asian studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University. The new president, in Kingston’s words, may just need to “get out of Prabowo’s way as he alienates voters”.

Above all, Widodo needs to stick to his guns. Nobel laureate Paul Krugman is probably right that history will be kind to Obama, who overhauled health care, avoided a full-blown depression and put climate change firmly on Washington’s agenda. Widodo’s popularity doesn’t just stem from his down-to-earth personality (unlike Obama, he’s not a particularly impressive public speaker), but from his track record of delivering results. He needs to achieve more such victories as quickly as possible. Logical places to focus include: eliminating the structural inefficiencies that fan inflation; cutting red tape; attacking graft; making Indonesia a bigger link in Asia’s supply chain by reducing trade barriers and increasing manufacturing jobs; and setting a timeline to scrap subsidies that are overwhelming the budget. Widodo has promised to put experts and technocrats in charge of these reforms rather than political hacks, and he should keep his word.

Granted, that won’t be easy – not with even allies like former president Megawati Soekarnoputri, Widodo’s own party head, interfering with Cabinet picks. But Widodo’s five-year term will decide whether Indonesia marches forward toward a brighter future or lurches backward. He should pay heed to Obama’s example as he sets out.

The writer is a Bloomberg View columnist


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