“Put not your trust in princes.” — Niccolo Machiavelli.
In 2008, a new and vibrant candidate upended the status quo of Bill Clinton Democratic Party dominance and then Republican Senator John McCain to win the US Presidential election. This was Barack Obama, promising hope and “change you can believe in”. Fast forward five years, Obama’s popularity is now at a presidential low (40 percent approval), with a gridlocked Congress, a soaring US budget deficit of over US$17 trillion, spotty unemployment with marked under-employment, a healthcare scheme gone awry and reduced American prestige worldwide. Is there one notable thing that Obama’s administration has realized then since 2009?
Recently Jakarta Governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has been compared to Obama. Obama was a freshman US senator and former college instructor, who captured mass appeal in 2008 due largely to his youth and upstart status, eschewing established interests and business as usual politics. Jokowi was a former furniture maker who had success governing Surakarta and was elected governor of Jakarta in 2012, like Obama, due to his outlier status and refreshing outsider persona.
These things on paper and as presented in the popular media are great to admire, but a fundamental question exists: can Indonesia afford untested leadership in this age? The 2014 election decision will have real costs to all Indonesians. Consider the United States has found out that the untested presidential leadership elected in 2008 has been very expensive.
Jokowi is a likeable candidate, and in fact his current status as front-runner testifies to that, but he will be tested vigorously if elected president. Being a mayor or governor is one thing, but being a national leader is another. Mayors and governors are not generally subjected to foreign and extraterritorial factors. But consider that Aburizal Bakrie, a seasoned businessman especially in dealing with foreign investors, and Prabowo Subianto, a seasoned military man might bring weight to any discussion regarding foreign relations, especially with an immigration reform minded Australia. This is not to say that both of those candidates don’t have their shortcomings, they definitely do.
Huge questions then emerge and a Jokowi administrations ability to deal with them. While not the same challenges that Obama faced in 2008, the gravitas of these issues is the same. Consider a few, and ponder how a populist leader may react is in order.
The fuel subsidy. This will be the paramount issue for any new leader immediately after the elections. The Indonesian budget will force a newly elected leader to deal with them. A core question then is how? Will it only be the consumer (the majority of which will vote) that pays the price through higher fuel prices, or will producers be forced to deal with this issue also, such as a re-visitation of contracts with foreign investors and the elites in the Indonesian government that approved them via The Upstream Oil and Gas Regulatory Special Task Force (SKK Migas) or its predecessor, BPMigas? This also applies to mining issues.
Corruption and the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). The urge for self-interest in an economically resurgent Indonesia has apparently never been greater. The apple does not fall far from the tree. People watch what their leaders do and imitate them. A new leader will need a strong hand in dealing with corruption, especially if friends, business associates, and even enforcers, are caught in the act.
The leader must be prepared to take decisive action, not mollycoddle or obfiscate the truth or protect friends. Indonesia is a culture of harmony, where transgressions are at times overlooked to preserve it. This will no doubt alienate some who felt their rent seeking activity is of justified protected status.
Soaring food prices and food imports. A populist measure to stabilize food prices would be through subsidies, similar to the fuel subsidy. Indonesia already subsidizes rice, but what about cassava, shallots, papaya, etc? Again, where will the money come from? From whom?
Climate Change: flooding and a fossil fuel addicted country. Indonesia, like California and Malaysia, has quickly become a “car culture”. The traffic gridlocks testify to that. Cheap flights from discount carriers are growing. Expanding ports in Surabaya and Jakarta will serve to amplify the fossil fuel footprint by increasing exports.
Underlying this consumption growth is the fact that Indonesia is a low-lying archipelago, with many cities and people on the front line — again flooding and rising sea levels. Global warming is not merely a belief system, it is factual and it is happening. How will a new leader balance this conundrum between two very different perspectives, one economic, one nature?
Terrorism and US dictates. Western foreign powers are pressing Indonesia and other countries to “crack down” hard on terrorism, and the money laundering that accompanies it. Yet, to be effective, this risks alienating ethnic and religious groups. US aid is by and far predicated on getting leaders to do what they want, mostly through military channels. Will the new leader divorce himself from a hand that gives or irritate those that put so much faith in him to further their aspirations of change and perhaps autonomy?
In essence, similar to the US with a budget deficit of $17 trillion, most of these issues confronting Indonesia are economic ones. New economic policies will create winners and losers. Can that be
However, unlike the US, Indonesia does not have reserve currency status, thereby it cannot kick these problems down the road for the next leader, as in the case of Obama. Indonesia, and if elected, Jokowi, will be forced by the markets to deal with these issues on market terms in short order. If correctly addressed, these issues will require some sacrificial pain on all sides, but if dealt with ineptly, further currency devaluations, and a lower living standard for many, will
So to that end, can Indonesia really afford a new populist leader? Is he promising unrealistic things? Is Jokowi really the best candidate to lead Indonesia in trying times?
There are other candidates, some more business oriented or military oriented. Perhaps a rethink is in order. Indonesia will ultimately be accountable for whoever they elect and have to live with that decision. As Machiavelli put it “A prince can be effectively merciful only by the skillful use of cruelty, effectively liberal only by being tight-fisted”.
The writer is associate professor at Linton Global College (LGC) in Daejeon, the Republic of Korea.