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Juggling patronage, politics in Jokowi’s Cabinet reshuffle

Almost nine months after President Joko Widodo announced the line-up of his working Cabinet, a deteriorating economy and slow progress of reform are the driving forces determining the necessity of a Cabinet reshuffle.

Juggling patronage, politics in Jokowi’s Cabinet reshuffle

Since his inauguration, Mr Widodo has had to contend with pressure from his political party and its chairperson, Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri. Photo: REUTERS

Almost nine months after President Joko Widodo announced the line-up of his working Cabinet, a deteriorating economy and slow progress of reform are the driving forces determining the necessity of a Cabinet reshuffle.

While many question whether it would be too soon to judge the ministers in their respective roles, Cabinet reshuffles are not an unusual exercise in post-Reformasi administrations.

Former President Abdurrahman Wahid reshuffled the Cabinet four times during his two-year tenure. Dr Yudhoyono, the predecessor of Mr Widodo, or Jokowi, as he prefers to be called, changed his Cabinet line-up 14 months after his first-term inauguration, and had a total of five reshuffles during his two-term presidency.

Unlike Dr Yudhoyono, who dominated his political party, Mr Widodo has limited political space in composing his working Cabinet, and is likely to have limited freedom in reshuffling it, too. Since his inauguration, he has had to contend with pressure from his political party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), and its chairperson, Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Moreover, PDI-P will not be the only political player to influence the composition of the new Cabinet, as the parties that are part of his coalition, as well as those from the opposition camp, will also join the fray.

Under such circumstances, besides the ministers’ performances, patronage and political calculations are likely to affect Mr Widodo’s choices. A recent poll by Kompas newspaper showed that 59 per cent of the people are disappointed with the government’s performance.

Among the top concerns were the government’s failure to maintain a stable price for basic commodities, as well as its limited efforts in eradicating graft, particularly with regard to enforcing the law against elites involved in corruption.

Should he reshuffle his Cabinet, which will affect several key ministers, Mr Widodo is likely to go by three parameters: Institutional organisation, budget utilisation and policies.


Mr Widodo has reportedly been focusing on his economic ministers. Although the President acknowledged that they had good skills, he believes they have failed in stimulating the Indonesian economy and keeping commodity prices stable.

While the strength of the United States dollar has hit emerging-market currencies in general, the rupiah did worse than other countries, falling by around 7 per cent since Mr Widodo was elected. In the first quarter, Indonesia’s economic growth declined to 4.7 per cent, the slowest in five years, while inflation accelerated 7.1 per cent in May.

Besides his economic ministers, Mr Widodo is also reportedly focusing his attention on the Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, Mr Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno. The President has highlighted Mr Tedjo’s statements on the conflict between the National Police and the Corruption Eradication Commission, which had caused a huge controversy.

On the other hand, among the apparently effective ministers are Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti and Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin, due to their breakthrough approaches and thoughts on illegal fishing and religious intolerance, respectively.

While changes are needed, Mr Widodo will have to calculate the political cost of composing the new Cabinet. Given his limited political power, patronage becomes a prominent element in clinching the reshuffle.

In this, there are two factors to consider. Firstly, Mr Widodo is not the sole decision maker in PDI-P, as Ms Megawati still holds the throne.

Secondly, Mr Widodo also needs to retain the loyalty of his coalition members, by including their cadres in the Cabinet. Defection by anyone in his coalition camp will loosen his grip on Parliament. The President may need to engage in a trade-off between improving his Cabinet and retaining the loyalty of a coalition partner.

The new Cabinet is also an opportunity for the party oligarchs to strengthen their “wealth defence mechanism” by replacing some cadres seen as rebellious and unfaithful to them. Therefore, we could see more party loyalists surfacing if those political parties manage to drive the reshuffle process. These old cadres, especially those who have sacrificed themselves for the party, have a big opportunity to return to the spotlight.

To gain more power in Parliament, Mr Widodo may also appoint ministers from the opposition, such as the National Mandate Party. Although this issue has been widely discussed in the media, whether it will finally materialise depends on the administration’s calculus of political balance.

Nevertheless, the President may choose to resist pressure from party oligarchs such as Ms Megawati and Mr Surya Paloh, as well as Vice-President Jusuf Kalla, and fight back.

This scenario could emerge if Mr Widodo feels he has enough political power to contest the oligarchs. Inviting new power groups into his circle to balance the current political order is an initial step for this scenario to come to fruition. Political transactions will be an inevitable consequence of this manoeuvre.

These new factions will definitely ask for some share of government positions and the decision-making process, or even political protection and government projects.

By doing this, Mr Widodo is likely to face greater political instability due to the fractious nature of coalition politics rather than consolidate the current order. That is, unless he is willing to accommodate both the new groups and his current partners in an expanded coalition.

However, a large coalition does not always produce positive results. A downside is a slow decision-making process, as all parties will need to be involved.

Besides bringing in an outside coalition group, Mr Widodo could appoint those from within his own circle to corral the oligarchs. He would, however, find difficulties in nominating his own people, due to his relatively small political network drawn from contacts established when he was Mayor of Surakarta and, subsequently, Governor of Jakarta, leaving him with limited options. Furthermore, political contestation is likely if his appointees fail to add political weight to his camp.


Leonard C Sebastian, Tiola Javadi and Adhi Priamarizki are, respectively, associate professor and coordinator, research associate, and associate research fellow with the Indonesia programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS). This commentary first appeared in RSIS Commentaries.

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