Indonesian President Jokowi celebrates 2 years in office with an eye on 2019 vote

Two years since becoming the seventh President of Southeast Asia's largest economy, Joko Widodo has survived a tough initiation process. The next test: Delivering on reforms while navigating Indonesia's complex political system.

Commonly referred to as Jokowi, the 55 year-old celebrates his second anniversary in office on Wednesday following a tough first year in which he faced both domestic and external challenges, including a global economic slowdown that sent the rupiah tumbling to 17-year lows.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Berlin, Germany, on April 18, 2016.
Sean Gallup | Getty Images
Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Berlin, Germany, on April 18, 2016.

"There were unreasonably high expectation that greeted his election, but political realities quickly burst this bubble. Jokowi's first year was largely disappointing, while the last 12 months have shown more promise. On balance, he has done well given the hand he was dealt," summed up Hugo Brennan, Asia analyst at Verisk Maplecroft.

The populist leader rose to power in a campaign that focused on his connection with low-income Indonesians, who make up the bulk of the population. The self-professed metalhead grew up in a Java slum, worked as a carpenter and then a furniture exporter before getting elected as mayor of Jakarta, becoming the first Indonesian president outside of the military and political elite.

Here, we chart out Jokowi's biggest feats to-date and the obstacles that lie ahead.

Accomplishments

Given Indonesia's long history of current account and budget deficits, Jokowi's efforts to free up fiscal space are typically regarded as the biggest feathers in his cap. In late 2014, his government abolished gasoline subsidies and in July this year, he launched a tax amnesty program that has so far met 60 percent of the government's $12.7 billion revenue target for year-end.

But for many, his ability to survive politically in a nation dogged by corruption and patronage remains the biggest triumph.

"Many have failed to consider how tough it is for him to find a footing in the rough world of Indonesian national politics," explained Achmad Sukarsono, Asia analyst at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group.

In his early days, Jokowi struggled with a minority in the parliament and faced daily taunts from fellow party members who considered him a greenhorn politician from the sticks, Sukarsono continued.

Fast forward to the present, and Jokowi is now backed by nearly 70 percent of parliament, nearly double of the support he held in 2014. That includes political entities that were previously in the opposition, such as Indonesia's second-largest party Golkar.

"Having started out as a political outsider, Jokowi's greatest achievement has been consolidating his power [in his second year]. Thanks to some shrewd political maneuvering, he is now the undisputed master of the political stage and in a strong position to implement his agenda over the next three years," echoed Brennan.

Following Golkar's re-election endorsement in July, speculation is high for the President to win another five-year term in the 2019 general election.

"That is a great achievement for a furniture seller who five years ago thought being a mayor of a medium-size city in Central Java was the pinnacle of his life," Sukarsono noted.

Thanks to his fiscal reforms, Jokowi has also been able to start financing various infrastructure projects, including national roads, airports, irrigation plants, enhanced electricity capacity, a high-speed railway, maritime toll routes and the Trans-Papua highway.

Hurdles

While Jokowi's approval ratings remain robust—The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) pinned it at 66 percent in a survey last month—there is a sense of growing impatience with his reform agenda.

Employment growth is now slower than population growth, while moderating economic growth—hit by the global commodity slump—has resulted in a weaker pace of poverty reduction, the World Bank said in a report last month. "More needs to be done in terms of spreading the wealth horizontally to prevent the income gap from widening," observed Bilveer Singh, associate professor at the National University of Singapore.

External geopolitical threats in the form of terrorism and Sino-American competition in the South China Sea, which borders Indonesia's gas-rich Natuna region, are also problematic.

But the biggest thorn in the President's side remains internal politics.

"Keeping various competing elite factions on side and playing ball will prove a tough task in the run up to 2019," stated Brennan.

Megawati Sukarnoputri, chairwoman of the ruling party Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and a former President, is seen as Jokowi's toughest opponent.

"He has realized he cannot advance reforms without political support ... As long as she leads the party, Jokowi will have to kiss the ring and satisfy her interests to ensure she does not intervene in daily policymaking," explained Sukarsono.

The President can currently only make inroads in certain sectors---infrastructure, fiscal, and the creative economy---but in order to see progress in other areas, such as anti-corruption and human rights, he must be strong enough to negotiate with vested interests that resist reforms there, Sukarsono continued.

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