Book Review: The enigma of Jokowi

“Man of Contradictions: Joko Widodo and the struggle to remake Indonesia” by Ben Bland

What kind of politician who can do so much by saying so little? Who can play both ends between the elite and the ordinary people? Whose unpredictability can consistently surprise his strongest critics and disappoint his most fanatic supporters? The answer: a good one. This trait is in fact one of Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power: assume formlessness.

In that case, is Jokowi a good president? Well, not so fast.

This book does a great job on depicting the hard-to-define enigma of Indonesia’s 7th president, Joko Widodo, or belovedly nicknamed Jokowi. He was a simple local furniture businessman in small town Solo, whom the book then cheekily portray as “accidentally on purpose” at becoming the most powerful man in Indonesia in less than a decade later.

The author of the book, Ben Bland, certainly have the right credentials to be able to write a full picture of the president. He was the Indonesia correspondent for the Financial Times (2012-2015), whom was very much present from the time Jokowi was a mayor of Solo, to when he was running to be the governor of Jakarta (2012), until when he was elected as the country’s president (2014).

It is by far the most honest portrayal of the man, without hidden agenda and without partisanship bias, with the good, the bad, and most importantly the contradictive nature of Jokowi all presented within the context of complicated Indonesian political environment. Remember that crucial last point.

Along with the presidential vote, 16 parties were competing in 2014 election with 9 parties secured power in the 575-seat main parliamentary body (DPR). When Jokowi won the race, he showed his knack as a master in transactional politics where he can increase his coalition from 40% control of the parliament into 70% in just 2 years. But this move came with a heavy price tag. With patronages and compromises mean his choice of ministers were not entirely up to him, that the best of the best people for the job often overlooked to make way for the choices made by his party’s chairman Megawati, the wider coalition, and the tycoons that back him up financially.

The complication exacerbated by the fact that there are no well-defined ideology in Indonesia, no left wing or right wing, no liberals and conservatives, with the only differences between the parties are Islamic parties or nationalist parties. And even then the nationalist parties promote syariah regulations and the Islamic parties support secular policies change such as abolishing motorcycle tax. Bland also remark “[the parties] operate more as a vote-getting machines at election time and patronage distribution machines once on power. It is little wonder that Indonesians consider their political parties to be among the nation’s most corrupt institutions.”

Moreover, the book brilliantly capture one of the core problems in the country’s political environment, where “many decisions, in any case, are made in backroom deals on issue-based parliamentary committees, rather than majority votes of the whole DPR. This reflects a political culture that prioritises musyawarah and mufakat – ‘deliberation’ and ‘consensus’ – over sound policymaking” in an environment where money is the only real ideology.

It was in this context, in an environment where the elite dynasties are dominating Indonesia’s political parties (and hence political landscape), that Jokowi emerged as a fresh hope, as one of us the people. His folksy charm of blusukan (direct visit to the slumps) – where he told the author that the idea was ridiculously simple: “go to the people, ask what their problems are, and then solve them” – has since copied by seemingly all politicians in the country.

But by being constantly on the road meeting people he often criticized for always in a “support rally” mode and not working as the actual leader, a problem most obvious during his short 2 year tenure as the governor of Jakarta. And as a president with politically-appointed ministers this problem escalated into the national stage: with the absence of clear guidance from the president, our daily news are filled with shenanigans made by some rouge ministers while others became a media darling with little effectiveness, where the book commented that “Jokowi prioritised action (and PR stunts) over quality and planning.”

Jokowi also has the tendency to disregard experts’ advice and has the unwillingness to listen to analysis, and instead rely more on snap judgements and act upon stubborn desires, which also contribute to the chaos of his presidency, for better or for worse, whether it is wrecking havoc industries or become a good catalyst for change. “Well-intentioned but poorly executed, it was a metaphor for the way Jokowi’s government managed the economy”, as the book put it.

And while as a mayor of Solo it was relatively easy to get every fraction of society to be more or less satisfied, as a president it became increasingly difficult for him to please everybody, which is very apparent in, among many others, his policy on Foreign Direct Investment: Promising foreign investors for better and more relaxed regulations to attract investments, at the same time promising local businesses to protect them from foreign competitions. A man of contradictions.

However, when it comes to political maneuvers, he’s the chess master. Chapter 5 was particularly hard to read, as the scar from the event still feel very fresh and left me with a bitter reminder of the rotten world of Indonesian politics, with Jokowi’s backstab at his loyal partner (for the safety of the nation) simultaneously opened the gate for the flood of hardliners to grab power in Indonesia. But few people can arguably handle it as well as him, with the relative peace (and not civil war) we all get to enjoy since 2016 until now is a testament of his mastery.

So, is Jokowi a good president? The book finally answers the dilemma I had on my president. I voted AGAINST his opponent (not necessarily FOR him) for reasons exactly like the book says in page 108. And as you would see throughout the book, in a diverse country of 273 million people spread across 17,000 islands, 1300 ethnic groups, 300 languages, and 6 official religion, the complex political environment in Indonesia constrain him (and would also constrain anyone after him) from fully implement his vision of the country, and perhaps had even turn an idealistic man into a pragmatic one.

So in that sense, he’s not an effective Indonesian president, nobody could be. But love him or hate him, or indifferent about him, one thing can’t be denied: he may be an ineffective president, but he’s a damn good politician.