Jokowi’s response to COVID-19: A question of legacy?

As the fourth most populous country in the world and as the largest archipelago, Indonesia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been slow and facile. The country confirmed its first two COVID-19 cases on 2 March and it took them almost a month to declare this pandemic as public health emergency on 31 March. As of 20 April, Indonesia has registered 6,760 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 590 deaths with the latter being the highest in the region. Moreover, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security has put Indonesia’s mortality rate at more than 8%, the highest in the world ahead of even Italy, Iran, China, Japan and Spain.

All of this suggests severe mismanagement by President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo and his administration during the initial and the most crucial months of the ongoing crisis. Jokowi’s initial response stemmed from his desire to carry on with his reforms to establish his legacy and it seems that the fear for the same legacy is making him act now.

Why the delay?

For Jokowi, the year 2020 was expected to be the most important year for his economic plans which would have defined his legacy. Having tasted success with his economics – well known as Jokowinomics – in the first term, it was expected of Jokowi to double-down on his pro-growth approach under Jokowinomics 2.0. This possibly is the reason why it is widely argued that Widodo has been more concerned about the economic and social impact of COVID-19 than about the country’s weak health system during the recent pandemic.

Under Jokowinomics 2.0, the new omnibus legislation on the creation of employment and to improve Indonesia’s investment prospectus is deemed pivotal. Through this legislation, Jokowi aims to replace dozens of overlapping measures in a bid to improve the investment climate and create jobs in Indonesia. Analyst Jefferson NG notes that the success of Jokowi’s agenda depends on his ability to push through his legislative agenda by this year for him “to effect visible change before he steps down.” The importance of this bill and Jokowi’s ‘ability to push’ can be understood by the latter conveying to the House of Representatives to complete the law in a maximum of 100 days. The ongoing pandemic might delay the passing of the law in the stipulated time.

While shutting down the economy could have been one of the primary reasons behind Jokowi’s delayed response, the lack of political challenge and fear of political loss could be another major reason. In Indonesia’s political structure, a President can only serve for a maximum of two terms and Jokowi is already in his second term. There is no fear of him losing another election in case of negative public popularity owing to his delayed response to the crisis. There are also slim chances of him facing any backlash from within the parliament as he currently leads a majority coalition which controls roughly 74% of the parliament. This coalition involves several Indonesian political elites who have all been rivals of Jokowi and his Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) it is suggested that this coalition was formed to ensure an easy passage for the success of Jokowi’s reform agenda.

Expected backlash

While it appears that economic considerations and no immediate threat to his presidency seemed to have led to Jokowi’s delayed response, the President and his administration have now sprung into action. Alongside increasing mortality rate and growing international pressure, it is the fear of public outrage, the backlash from the Islamist allies and overall loss of legacy that might have led to Jokowi’s changing approach.

Widodo has been extremely wary of public outrage and protests. In the last twelve months, Indonesia has witnessed three major protests: mass protests over the presidential election results of 2019, protests against suggested amendments to the Criminal Code and protests by labour unions against the omnibus legislation. Now, Jokowi’s delayed response to the COVID-19 pandemic has generated the potential for another public protest fuelled with anti-Chinese sentiments. Anti-Chinese sentiments are never far below the surface in Indonesia. Just like in the rest of the world, online trolls in Indonesia are accusing the Chinese of introducing the virus. Indonesia has already been witnessing violent protests against Chinese workers in several locations. Further, there is also a strong possibility of backlash from the Islamists after Jokowi’s banning of Mudik on 21 April. Jokowi already has the history of facing public protests and backlash from the Islamists during the ‘212 movement’ owing to the alleged blasphemous statements made by his close association with former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok), an ethnic Chinese Christian. This history along with the “Chinese virus” and Widodo’s favouring of Chinese investment, will make him vulnerable if the majority Islamists along with the protesters once again take the baton of anti-Chinese and anti-Jokowi sentiments.

Conclusion: Loss of legacy?

Jokowi first came to power in 2014 with his reformist agenda prioritizing infrastructure, development and economic reforms. All of his priorities went into second gear with his re-election for his second and final term last year. Jokowi is relying upon all of the above to define his legacy. It is often said that his goal is to be the country’s next “Father of Development”, a title once held by Suharto, Indonesia’s last dictator. It is the hunger for this legacy which led to his delayed response to the COVID-19 crisis and it is now the fear for his legacy which is making him act. Jokowi seems to have understood that if the crisis goes haywire in Indonesia from here on, COVID-19 will trump all his economic reforms and goals to define him as the country’s “Father of Disaster”.