Indonesian President’s New Cabinet Invites Apprehension


After securing a second term as Indonesia’s President, Joko Widodo announced  his new cabinet line-up on Wednesday 23 October. The election race was a rematch of the 2004 elections. For the second time, Widodo found himself facing his long-time political rival Prabowo Subianto, leader of the Gerindra Party, who has run for President four times in the last fifteen years. The campaign was fraught with unrest: fake online news, accusations from the Subianto camp that the Government was guilty of a “massive, systematic and fraudulent” election and riots in Jakarta that left at least nine people dead and more than 200 injured. As such, it was to the surprise of many that Widodo appointed Subianto as Indonesia’s new Defence Minister. The announcement was shocking as Subianto is a notorious figure. The son in law of former dictator Suharto, and ex-army general of the infamous special forces group the Kopassus, he has been accused of the kidnapping and disappearance of several pro-democracy student activists in 1998, as well as atrocities in East Timor.

When President Widodo made the announcement on Wednesday, he said, “I believe I don’t have to tell him about his job – he knows more than I do”. Many commentators were quick to highlight the negative implications to Indonesia’s steady progress on human rights. Indonesian researcher Andreas Harsono commented, “it’s a dark day for human rights and justice in Indonesia”. Executive Director of Amnesty Indonesia, Usman Hamid, told Al Jazeera that “Prabowo’s appointment is a worrying signal that our leaders are forgetting the darkest days and human right abuses committed in Suharto’s time”.

The story of how Joko Widodo became Indonesia’s leading man is a fairytale. The astronomical rise from successful furniture entrepreneur to mayor of Solo in central Java and then as governor of Jakarta, before becoming President, is nothing short of miraculous. His is a story of an unlikely political outsider who promised change in a young democratic country. Once hailed as the Barack Obama of South East Asia, President Widodo has turned his back on his people’s civil liberties to ensure a coalition in his Parliament by allowing Subianto to oversee the nation’s defence policy. Subianto is a man with a questionable human rights record. He once famously exclaimed to Guardian journalist Kate Lamb, “Don’t come and teach me about democracy! Don’t teach me politics of identity, I know! I was a commander, I had Christian soldiers, Hindu soldiers, die under my command. You think I am going to betray them?” This is an uneasy portrait of a man who cares more for soldiers and war than for the defence and security of his country.

There appears to be a distinct policy and agenda shift in the President’s second term. With the appointment of Subianto as Defence Minister, President Widodo has also supported legislation that would substantially curtail personal freedoms, such as free speech, by making it a crime to insult the President. The legislation would also ban abortions except in cases of rape and incest, and criminalise sex outside of marriage. President Widodo has also limited the authority of the national Anti-Corruption Commission. This has prompted large-scale student protests across the country. Freedom House, an independent watchdog organisation, has applauded Indonesia for their democratic gains since the era of military rule under Suharto. However, Freedom House has labelled Indonesia as only partly free on account of the continual systemic corruption, violence and discrimination against minority groups. Indonesia’s Freedom Score is unlikely to improve in the next five years of President Widodo’s reign.

President Widodo’s choice to assign Prabowo Subianto to the role of Defence Minister is the latest in a series of rather telling events. The President’s actions since the election win signals a departure from his first term agenda and priorities. Incumbent Widodo’s campaign slogan this year was “Indonesia maju” which means “Indonesia advancing”. The question is, where to?