‘Change’ in Indonesia: critical reflections on the Indonesian elections

Indonesia is under a spell of change. But does the election of Joko Widodo really represent a clean break for the dirty politics of the past?

Klaas Stutje
6 September 2014

Jakarta, Indonesia. Wikipedia. Public domain.

Indonesia is under the spell of ‘change’. Last Thursday 21 August the Constitutional Court confirmed that Joko Widodo, or Jokowi as he is commonly referred to, will be the new president of Indonesia for the next five years. For many, Jokowi and his political style represent a clean break with traditional politics, and although his popularity waned in the last few weeks due to a disorganised political campaign, he still enjoys great confidence among large sections of the country’s urban poor and middle class.

Foreign observers waved him much praise as well: ‘His success will mean real ‘change’ - and it will have major implications for not only Jakarta or Indonesia but also much of Asia’, wrote the prominent Indian commentator Pankaj Mishra. Elsewhere, his rise to power was compared with that of Obama. Who is this man, who does he represent and what does ‘change’ mean in his words? Can he bring about a revolution in Indonesian politics, or is he indeed a new Obama?

Before we proceed, we need to recognise that whatever can be said about Jokowi and the probability that he brings real change, is beyond the affirmation that his win is a hundred times more preferable than a victory of his contestant, retired general Prabowo Subianto. The latter, about whom later more, is a military strongman from the years of the Suharto dictatorship. Many hold him accountable for kidnappings and tortures of activists and intellectuals during the turbulent fall of Suharto in 1998, and his army units were also involved in bloody massacres in East-Timor and West-Papua. His political campaign, in which he stressed the necessity of a strong leader for Indonesia, proved that Prabowo has not changed his political leanings very much since. Therefore, the election of Jokowi can be rightfully felt as a relief.

That said, most analyses ascribe the rise to power of Jokowi, who currently still holds the office of governorship of Jakarta, to an effective combination of energetic action in some pressing issues in Jakarta, a remarkably accessible attitude towards communities and social organisations, and a clean record of corruption and cronyism. Unlike most other politicians and former-presidents, Jokowi had no political backing of dark powers, such as the very powerful army, political parties of the old order such as Golkar, or financial powers and big capital, until the latest elections. He remains very much an outsider in politics.

Jokowi as a phenomenon

His biography reads like a fairy tale. Born in the Central Javanese city of Surakarta in 1961, Jokowi grew up in a poor family, where he had to help in the furniture workshop of his father at the age of twelve. After a career as a small businessman in wood and real estate, he entered politics less than a decade ago as a mayor of Surakarta. During his seven years in office, he won admiration in how he solved lingering issues. With an open approach towards communities, such as market traders, slum dwellers and drug addicts, he succeeded to reorganise public space, and he also made improvements in the public transport network, and in the maintenance of waterways and parks.

His fame soon reached the capital and in 2012 he won the governmental elections in Jakarta. Again he worked together with communities, and managed to revitalise some large infrastructural projects. Also, he put the administration to work through so-called ‘blusukan’: unannounced inspection visits to governmental bodies and public works in progress. These blusukan became his political trademark.

Not surprisingly, less than two years after he assumed office in Jakarta, pressure rose on Jokowi and his party, the progressive nationalist PDI-P, to step up for presidency. After lengthy considerations, Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Sukarno and former president who plays a central role behind the scenes of PDI-P, gave her approval. In a way, she had made the advent of Jokowi as an outsider possible, but due to the latter’s popularity Jokowi soon eclipsed the power relation, because it was him and only him that could bring the PDI-P to power.


This is where we stand now. For once, we seem to have an incorrupt politician, whose rise to power was independent of dark forces, who can steer a relatively independent course from his own party and who has shown commitment to the wellbeing of the ‘wong cilik’, the Indonesian man and woman in the street. However, there are other stories to tell.

First of all, his political basis is difficult to assess. As is common in Indonesia since Suharto, political parties lack a firm ideological basis. Successful politicians, generals and public figures easily jump from one party or coalition to the next. Most political programs do not contain more than general phrases such as the desire to ‘make Indonesia strong’, to tackle corruption and to ignite a moral revival. This applies equally to Jokowi. In interviews, he has stated that he stands for a ‘bottom-up’ approach in which the interests of the man on the streets and small entrepreneurs outweigh the interests of the business capital. In his own words, Jokowi strives for a ‘people-centred economy’. However, it is unclear how he wants to hear messages, demands and resolutions of ‘the people’, other than by leaving his presidential palace to lend an ear to local residents, shop owners and pedestrians. What are the social structures that he relies on? What does this really mean in terms of delegation of power and responsibilities? And, multiform as the Indonesian society is, who are the social classes that he trusts most?

This works also the other way around. Who are the social classes that trust Jokowi most? As yet, it is unclear who his followers are. Although the sentiments that have brought him to power are clear – an end to corruption, an end to the power of ‘old’ politicians with roots in the era of Suharto, and an urgent solution of the country’s most pressing issues – the voters themselves remain somewhat abstract. It seems that these people have no other commonality than their vote for Jokowi, and are not organised, either through institutions or through public spokespersons. It remains unclear how Jokowi will maintain the connection with these supporters after the elections.

A third and more alarming concern, is that Jokowi did not succeed in maintaining his independence. The Indonesian electoral system, as so many others, does not really accommodate genuine clean sweep politics. It is common that, prior to the elections, the many political parties organise themselves in two or three coalition blocks. Jokowi's block was dominated by his own progressive nationalist party PDI-P, but he also received support from splinters of Suharto's authoritarian Golkar Party, from army and secret service veterans, and a party of middle class businessmen. Outside parliament, he received the support of a large part of the trade union movement, of voters in the outer regions, and of religious minorities. It seems that Jokowi is not only accountable to ‘ordinary Indonesians’ who have had enough of corruption and long for a little comfort, but is also under the influence of a range of political, social and economic forces.

Moreover, to the horror of leftist activists, we still can find highly questionable persons in Jokowi’s coalition. One of them is retired general Hendropriyono, former head of the State Intelligence (BIN), who was commander of a unit committing massacres in Lampung in 1989 and was involved in the unsolved assassination of human rights activist Munir Said Thalib. Also we find retired general Ryamizard Ryacudu who fought separatism in Aceh and Papua at the cost of thousands and retired general Wiranto, who is now head of a political party but has a bloody past in East-Timor. These people do not belong in a people-centred government.

The combination of a vague ideological programme, a disorganised support base and various highly suspicion allies, makes the promise of change difficult to believe.

Social movements

But how does Jokowi approach existing social movements? Here, the same ambivalence applies.

The social terrain that gained most attention in recent years was Indonesia’s workers movement. The last five years, and with increasing intensity after 2011, there has been a spectacular rise in trade union mobilisations. With a number of massive and spectacular rounds of strikes, unions succeeded to establish significant minimum wage increases from employers; sometimes up to 50%.

In the time of Suharto, free trade unions did not exist in Indonesia, but after he disappeared from the stage, thousands of small factory unions were established all around the country. Initially, these unions, of which according to the Ministry of Labour some 12,000 exist today, were short-lived, had strong local roots and were very explosive in character. They addressed the needs of workers directly on the shop floor, and their demands rarely rose above factories and regions. This local orientation was both a result, and a consequence of the need to get rid of suffocating and loyalist national organisations that were implicated by connections with the old political order.

However, in recent years, change has occurred. Under the influence of internal training programmes in several national radical unions, successful and inspiring strikes such as those in the Freeport mine in Papua, and due to neoliberal policies of the central government, major national union federations have been established after 2008. Also, some more ideologically inspired labour organisations were founded, united in the Sekber Buruh federation. Consequently, actions have expanded from so-called on-site-of-grievance actions – usually at the shop floor –  to actions attacking provincial and national political bodies and employers organisations. This is an important development because such actions are more difficult to curb and manipulate.


These renewals have led to some major victories. A first success was a three month strike in late 2011 for a wage raise, better housing and working conditions in a mine in Papua, which was won by the trade unions. In early 2012, a general rise in fuel prices, which was desired by the IMF, was turned down after massive protests of workers and urban poor. Finally, there was a large general strike on 3 October 2012, in which an estimated 3 million people participated in 24 cities. Here, an increase of minimum wages, the establishment of a health insurance system by employers, and a stop to the outsourcing of factory personnel were demanded. These strikes and protests were only underlined by massive turnouts on May Day rallies.

Not only did this wave of protests bring significant wage increases, sometimes up to 160%. It also re-energised the broader critical left in Indonesia, which still had not overcome the Suharto era. Trade unions at the national level have reinvented their political power and are regarded as a serious political force by politicians and security services.

Two movements 

Both movements, the call for honest politics behind the rise of Jokowi and the struggle for better working conditions, which was the driving force behind the industrial actions of the last years, can be regarded as an evidence that the Reformasi of 1998 was not over yet. However, the dashing union mobilisations were also a test case for the sincerity of the change that Jokowi said to stand for. As a governor of Jakarta, he had to deal with protesting workers and demanding trade unions as well. The wider city-region of Jakarta, Jabodetabek, is indeed the main industrial zone of the country, and many of the radical union actions took place within this area.

One union in particular, the metalworkers federation FSPMI, which is the most militant and best organised branch of the trade union movement, had some intense rounds of negotiations with governor Jokowi. Although the latter had the power to increase minimum wages significantly, and despite his supposed orientation on the urban masses, he did not comply to the worker’s demands and even allowed some Korean companies to temporarily evaded the minimum wage regulations. When an alliance of trade unions and NGO’s protested his decisions, the governor turned them down, saying that their arguments were unfounded and that the unions did not represent the majority of workers.

This defeat of the Jakartan unions had some major implication for the labour movement as a whole. Dissatisfied with Jokowi’s refusal, the FSPMI, which claims a membership of over one hundred thousand workers, jumped ship to the coalition of Jokowi’s contestant Prabowo. They promised him support in exchange for a post as Minister of Labour for its leader Said Iqbal. This choice, and the subsequent defeat of Prabowo, has placed a bomb under the Indonesian trade union movement. Many still remember the crimes of Prabowo against workers and activists during the fall of Suharto in 1998, and will not forgive the FSPMI its choice. But because this union organises the most hardened cadres of the trade union movement, the workers are in great danger of losing a part of their strength.


Jokowi’s social record is of course not limited to his negotiations with demanding unions such as FSPMI. His approach to human rights issues, his statements concerning murdered activists and his support for a general re-evaluation of Indonesia’s past, most notably the Suharto era, are a bit more hopeful. It is, however clear that Jokowi is not a saint when it comes to progressive change, and is as much a politician as Obama and many others. His conception of a ‘people-centred economy’ is certainly not based on workers power, and his ‘bottom-up approach’ does not imply that he refuses to work with war criminals and dubious elites. We better think twice before we put hope in change we can believe in. Even in Indonesia.

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