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Consolidating support: Jokowi’s second Cabinet reshuffle

Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s Cabinet reshuffle last week warrants more caution than optimism. Notably, only one appointment generated overwhelmingly positive reactions, while some are seen as mere patronage politics and others signal his image-building efforts.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s Cabinet reshuffle last week warrants more caution than optimism. Notably, only one appointment generated overwhelmingly positive reactions, while some are seen as mere patronage politics and others signal his image-building efforts.

The highlight of the reshuffle is Ms Sri Mulyani Indrawati, who is back as Finance Minister having served in said capacity from 2005 to 2010 under the previous administration of Mr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Her comeback after a high-profile appointment at the World Bank is viewed with much optimism. Although some may still have doubts about her involvement in a high-profile bank bailout case in 2008, her expertise and international reputation as a policy expert are desperately needed to boost South-east Asia’s largest economy.

The other selections by Mr Widodo, however, sour this sense of hope.

On top of the list of questionable appointments is former army general Wiranto as Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister. His Hanura Party has long been a supporter of Mr Widodo. Mr Wiranto is widely known for his alleged involvement in the May 1998 riots, and for human rights violations perpetrated in East Timor. While his party now ends up with only one less Cabinet position (down from two), his appointment is clearly higher than the two previous ones. This selection’s significance is all the greater when we consider that he is replacing Mr Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, who has been Mr Widodo’s top policy adviser.

Granting this position now to Mr Wiranto raises questions on whether he would also be granted the same level of power as Mr Pandjaitan had. Mr Pandjaitan himself has been given an alternatively powerful position as Coordinating Minister of Maritime Affairs.

Although it may seem to some that it is a demotion, this is not the case and the move signals Mr Widodo’s commitment and seriousness in fulfilling his election promise of turning Indonesia into a global maritime axis.

Party politics and transactional appointments can also be seen in other appointments, such as that of Golkar Party’s Airlangga Hartarto (Industry Minister), which is a reward for his party’s decision to leave the opposition’s coalition in support of Mr Widodo.

The National Mandate Party (PAN) also received an acknowledgement in the appointment of Mr Asman Abnur as Administrative and Bureaucratic Reform Minister. PAN crossed the floor in September 2015. Persistent as Mr Widodo had been in trying to escape patronage politics, these ‘rewards’ for political support were nevertheless expected.

What seems to surprise many Indonesians more, however, is the reshuffling of ministers with good track records. Specifically, the appointment of new ministers of Energy and Mineral Resources (Mr Archandra Tahar), Transportation (Mr Budi Karya Sumadi), and Education and Culture (Mr Muhajir Effendi) were unexpected as Messrs Sudirman Said, Ignasius Jonan and Anies Baswedan — the people replaced — were seen to have been performing quite well.

The sacking of Mr Sudirman was especially disappointing as he has been relatively bold in tackling corrupt practices in the energy sector.

Notably, when this reshuffle is considered with other appointments and developments in mind, Mr Widodo’s track record in high-profile appointments remains mixed. His previous decision in June to appoint Mr Tito Karnavian as police chief was applauded. It was proof of the weakening grip of Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri, the former President who heads Mr Widodo’s party, Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, as her choice of Mr Budi Gunawan was clearly snubbed.

Yet, Mr Widodo has decided to keep Ms Puan Maharani — Ms Megawati’s daughter — as Coordinating Minister for Human Development and Culture despite her unpopularity and perceived incompetence. He seems to be striking a balance between various vested interests, in order to avoid upsetting any particular individual/group. His decision to keep Ms Puan and not other better-performing ministers raises red flags about Mr Widodo’s independence and doubts about how well-thought this recent reshuffling actually is.

Overall, the reshuffle raises more concerns than optimism. The appointments send a clear signal that Mr Widodo is consolidating his support base as he enters the second half of his five-year term. Party-related appointments — surely Mr Wiranto’s was such a case — made this clear. It is also proof of how hard it still is for Mr Widodo to escape transactional politics, particularly as he lacked a political base. Be that as it may, this new composition confirms that he can be decisive, does not tolerate disunity, and demands swift results — an image he portrays in sacking some popular ministers.

Policy-wise, the economy and maritime concerns seem to be top of his agenda. As such, we may expect some bold moves from Ms Mulyani in the economic front, particularly since commodity prices are low and the rupiah is weak. Mr Pandjaitan may bring a much-needed nudge to speed up maritime infrastructural initiatives and to take a stronger stance when South-east Asian nations are at odds with China over its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea. Relations between Indonesia and China have been affected by Indonesia’s crackdown on illegal fishing by Chinese vessels in its waters near the Natuna Islands, and Jakarta is strengthening security around the area with the deployment of warships, an F-16 fighter jet, surface-to-air missiles, a radar and drones, and building new ports and improving an airstrip.

In mid-June, the president had summoned Mr Pandjaitan to specifically discuss the South China Sea issue, and this was followed by a visit by Mr Widodo to the Natuna Islands on a warship in an apparent show of force. In light of these events, Mr Pandjaitan’s new appointment may be a way for him to take control of the issue and assert Indonesia’s stance further.


Ulla Fionna is a Fellow at ISEAS –Yusof Ishak Institute whose research interests include Indonesian politics.

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