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Indonesian President Joko Widodo with Vice-President Ma'ruf Amin (right). Photo: AFP

Jokowi’s foes now want to be his friends. Will playing nice benefit Indonesia?

  • After a divisive election, the country is crying out for new infrastructure, improved labour conditions and a revitalised manufacturing sector
  • Co-opting Prabowo Subianto and allies into Joko Widodo’s coalition may help political stability and allow for focus on economic reforms. But there are downsides
With President Joko Widodo officially confirmed to have won his second term as Indonesia’s leader, allies of his opponent are looking to switch sides, but analysts are divided on whether a broad ruling coalition will ensure political stability.
Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, has indicated his willingness to reconcile with his challenger, former general Prabowo Subianto, whose claim of widespread vote rigging in the April 17 election was thrown out by the country’s constitutional court on June 28.

Prabowo has not directly responded to overtures made by Jokowi’s aides. Neither has he conceded defeat although he did say he accepted the court verdict. But by telling supporters not to protest against the court decision, the chairman of the Gerindra party might be signalling that he “has indeed brokered an arrangement of sorts with the administration”, analyst Kevin O’Rourke wrote in the most recent issue of his Reformasi Weekly newsletter.

“Prabowo may be angling for rewards such as public offices for Gerindra figures that would be remunerative for the party,” O’Rourke said, adding Prabowo would need to be cautious to avoid criticism he was betraying his supporters for material gains.

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Hardline Islamic groups had thrown their support behind Prabowo and were behind initially peaceful protests against Jokowi’s win in Jakarta on May 21-22 that later degenerated into violent riots leaving nine people dead.

Among the mainstream political parties that supported Prabowo, at least two are thought to be in discussions to switch allegiances.

Arya Fernandes, a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party “appears certain to join” the pro-Jokowi coalition while the National Mandate Party “is having an internal debate between pro-government factions and pro-opposition factions”.

Fernandes said Gerindra was still weighing its options as it had “too many demands which are difficult for Jokowi to accept”. But Jokowi did not really need Prabowo and Gerindra, he added, as the president’s Indonesia Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and its coalition partners already commanded about 60 per cent of parliament seats.

Still, analysts agreed a crossover by opposition parties could ease the polarisation caused by April’s divisive election, which was marred by identity and religious politics.

It could also avoid potential parliamentary roadblocks as Jokowi doubles down on much-needed reforms to make it easier to do business, improve labour conditions, develop infrastructure and revive Indonesia’s sagging manufacturing sector, they noted.

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Wisnu Wardana, an economist with Bank Danamon Indonesia said narrowing the productivity-pay gap – which represents the difference between how much productivity has grown in relation to wages – would make the country more attractive to investors, such as China, which is among the top three sources of foreign direct investment into the country.

“This would require massive political support, as it is potentially unpopular and affects average Indonesians in general,” he said.

Wisnu said FDI from China to Indonesia had shrunk from US$3.4 billion in 2017 to US$2.4 billion last year, with funds going into the corporate sector, retail and domestic high-end residential property, with the country continuing to be one of the archipelago’s major investors.

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Masyita Crystallin, an economist for DBS Group Research Indonesia, said Indonesia’s traditional dependence on exporting commodities meant it would be difficult to achieve growth of beyond six per cent this year. The US-China trade spat has led to slowdowns in both economies and Indonesia’s exports have slumped in the first quarter of the year because of demand for its goods.

She said the focus should now be on revitalising the country’s manufacturing sector, which grew only about 4 per cent last year – below overall GDP growth of 5.17 per cent.

Chinese organisations such as the Bank of China have been a major source of foreign direct investment for Indonesia. Photo: Xinhua

Still, widespread concerns remain among Jokowi’s supporters over bringing Prabowo and his allies into the ruling coalition. One worry is that patronage, rather than competency and professionalism, will shape Jokowi’s decisions in building his cabinet.

The president attempted to assuage these fears in an interview with the prominent Kompas newspaper on Monday, where he said: “What is important is that every ministry is filled by people who are experts in their respective fields. They [should] understand the problems in the field to the point where they could easily execute the respective programmes, [and] easily solve existing problems.”

Analysts say Prabowo would be betraying his supporters if he joined Jokowi’s coalition. Photo: AFP

Dodi Ambardi, a senior researcher at Indikator Politik Indonesia, a polling outfit, said having Prabowo in the cabinet risked the president being “bullied” as his long-time rival used to be “a strongman” in the military.

Co-opting Prabowo did not necessarily mean the former general’s party would automatically be more cooperative, either.

“It has often occurred that even though a party has entered into a ruling coalition, it could still be critical of the government. The only difference is that the criticism is not as loud,” said Ambardi.

O’ Rourke said rewarding Prabowo when he had refused to concede defeat would likely “neglect the need to assign proper accountability for the organisers and financers of the hired gangs that perpetrated violence [in May]”.

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Bridget Welsh, a senior research associate at the Centre for East Asia Democratic Studies, said she doubted Prabowo would enter into a coalition with Jokowi because several of his key associates, including two retired generals, have been arrested for “treasonous plots”. These include allegations that one of them ordered the assassination of four of Jokowi’s most senior security aides.

“These [arrests] are seen as an attack on Prabowo’s people. If he moves towards cooperation [with Jokowi], he would be seen as betraying the people who supported him,” Welsh said.

Philips Vermonte, executive director of the Centre for Strategic International Studies, agreed, saying Prabowo would be betraying his voters if he became part of Jokowi’s government.

“The people voted Prabowo because they did not like Jokowi. And if he joins Jokowi’s government, he would be betraying them,” he said.

“He should remain in the opposition as a healthy democracy needs a good opposition.”

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This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: benefits and risks in widodo reaching out to rival camp