A popular anti-populist’s exit poses a challenge for Indonesia

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The writer is chair of Rockefeller International

At a time when leaders around the world are struggling with record low approval ratings, Indonesian president Joko Widodo is ending his time in office on a high. At 80 per cent, Widodo’s latest approval rating is the highest for the leader of any major democracy and very unusual for a politician who has spent a decade in power.

Widodo’s time is up, thanks to term limits. He will not be on the ticket when Indonesians vote on February 14. Summing up the challenge the country now faces as a unifying figure fades from the scene, a leading businessman recently told me he’d be thrilled if the next president is even 70 per cent as good as Widodo.

A vast archipelago nation with a history of violent political, class and religious conflicts, Indonesia has enjoyed a decade of placid progress under Widodo. Raised in the slums of Solo, a city in central Java, Widodo was the first president not to come from Indonesia’s circle of elite families, yet he eschewed “us vs them” populism. Instead, pragmatism and stability were his defining traits.

I interviewed Widodo twice, the last time during his 2019 re-election campaign, in an airport lounge. He was returning from one of his blusakans, a visit to the villages to listen to voters, and showed up dressed in an inexpensive-looking shirt and sneakers. He emphasised “implementation” over “ideology,” and the need for flexibility in a leader. He described himself as willing to play any role — director, producer, actor, “even the audience”. The frontrunner to replace him, former general Prabowo Subianto, has recast his image in a similarly approachable mould.

Throughout his tenure, Widodo made a priority of containing the deficit, which averaged less than 3 per cent of GDP during his terms. He inherited a plan for universal healthcare and pushed it hard, extending coverage from 56 per cent to 94 per cent of the people in a population of 280mn. That’s the largest programme of its kind in the world, yet public health spending still comes in at barely 1 per cent of gross domestic product. Widodo was also very conscious of keeping inflation low, saying rising prices hurt the poor the most. Food price inflation, a scourge that has toppled many a leader, trended steadily down on his watch. 

But during his time in office, the economy did not enjoy the 7 per cent growth he had promised. Indonesia grew at a rate of 4 to 5 per cent a year, faster than most emerging nations certainly, but no faster than its south-east Asian neighbours.

One of his top advisers told me that he kept urging Widodo to run a bigger deficit, in order to push growth faster, but the president remained cautious, choosing stability over a dash for growth. This might be explained by the way that 1998, the year riots provoked by the Asian financial crisis left Jakarta in flames, still lingers in the minds of many Indonesians.

Stability seems to suit them. In a 2023 Edelman survey of leading developed and developing nations, 73 per cent of Indonesians said they expected to be better off in five years — among the highest readings for any country. 

That optimism may not last if the economy keeps trudging along at a growth rate of 4 to 5 per cent. With a per capita income of $5,000, Indonesia barely qualifies as a middle-income nation. Many of the Asian tigers grew twice as fast at a similar stage of development.

And he also leaves behind him a long to-do list of reforms that Indonesia would need to generate faster growth, including a much friendlier regulatory environment, far less state interference in the economy and a greater infrastructure push to boost manufacturing.

Widodo cultivated a reputation as the “king of infrastructure”, building dozens of dams, ports, new airports and thousands of kilometres of new toll roads. But at 2 per cent of GDP, infrastructure spending in Indonesia is significantly lower than that of its neighbours.

Critics also fault him for spending too much of his energy on the construction of a new capital city, seen by some as a classic vanity project, and of using his influence to clear a path for his son to run for vice-president. History may yet judge that he didn’t do enough to make Indonesia a tiger economy.

Still, in an era of widespread voter disenchantment, Widodo’s political style and the relative calm he presided over are striking. He could have exploited his modest background and governed as an angry populist, but he chose unity instead. He will be a hard act to follow.  

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