Widodo needs support of all Indonesians

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 July, 2014, 4:39am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 July, 2014, 12:05pm

Joko Widodo has altered the face of Indonesian politics, being elected president despite having no connections to the political or military elite. Voters in the world's third-biggest democracy turned to him for his humble background and man-of-the-people appeal. In terms of the country's democratic evolution, that is a substantial sign of progress. But it is also likely to mean his term in office will have its share of challenges; even before being sworn in, he faces a hurdle with his rival, Prabowo Subianto, contesting the win in the courts.

Prabowo lost by an eight-million vote margin, so his challenge on grounds of electoral fraud has a slender chance of succeeding. Even if it fails, though, he can still make legislative life difficult for Widodo - his political coalition of parties holds about two-thirds of the seats in parliament. Even though the ousting of late dictator Suharto 16 years ago ushered in democracy - Prabowo is a former son-in-law and general - armed forces service and membership of the closely linked business elite still counts for much. With the new president taking charge of a country facing economic troubles, Indonesia at this time needs a gracious loser, not a political thorn.

Widodo, the governor of Jakarta and a former furniture salesman, needs to attract investors to get Southeast Asia's biggest economy back on track. Commodities like coal have been a mainstay of growth, but with prices falling, new industries are needed. To attract investment and skills, infrastructure has to be improved, webs of regulation untangled and corruption stamped out. But there is also the politically sensitive matter of energy subsidies: accounting for a hefty one-fifth of the annual budget, they are a drain on growth.

While Widodo has made their phasing out a priority, efforts by previous presidents have been met by countrywide protests. Key to implementing much-needed reforms will be who is in his cabinet. Past political practice has been to put connections and affiliations ahead of all else. But the new leader's record as governor was to reward ability, a style that autocratic-minded elites find uncomfortable.

Widodo represents a new chapter for Indonesia. His plans for almost doubling defence spending to 1.5 per cent of GDP is in line with his vision of building a confident nation. But with little in the state coffers, a shortage of basic infrastructure like roads and electricity and a corrupt bureaucracy, the challenge is considerable. Success requires all Indonesians to give their support; Prabowo should set the tone by conceding defeat.