Joko Widodo walks alongside outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono

From today, Indonesia will call him President Joko Widodo. Not even his rival Prabowo Subianto will qualify it. The two men met on Friday, and the former general conceded publicly to the one-time furniture maker. He even promised to attend today’s inauguration in Jakarta.

The momentary courtesy is apt as the solemn occasion approaches when Jokowi and Vice-President Jusuf Kalla take the oath of office in the legislative chamber in Senayan. But as soon as the ceremony is over the struggle will continue on the same ground. Unlike for the last decade, Indonesia now has an opposition. It is determined, vengeful, and wants to reverse the constitutional changes of reformasi. But it might be less united and weaker than it looks.

For months Prabowo stubbornly refused to acknowledge his defeat, even after the Constitutional Court completely rejected his appeal. His backers have been blunt. They were betrayed by the man they helped up to the Jakarta governorship and the national stage. Jokowi robbed them of the presidency.

The Wall Street Journal called it “payback time”; Prabowo’s brother promised an “active opposition”. “Yes, Mr Jokowi there is a price to be paid,” said Hashim Djojohadikusumo, also the money behind the failed candidate.

Opposition began the day before the July 9 presidential election, when Prabowo’s coalition combined to pass a law changing the rules by which the national legislature governed itself. When the newly elected members of the new body met to choose the house leadership, the four parties that supported Jokowi’s presidential bid failed to win a single key post. Those chairing the House of Representatives and its commissions are, for now, coalition partners of Prabowo’s.

But when the Islamic-oriented United Development Party (PPP) broke ranks on October 7 to swap sides, it was another indication of trouble in the ranks of Prabowo’s so-called Red and White Coalition. Jokowi has yet to announce his cabinet, and this will reveal whether any deals have been made. Rather than picking just technocrats as many of his idealistic supporters hoped, up to half of his appointees may be politicians. As president he has many other opportunities to turn patronage into influence.

Another battleground was the passing of a bill by the old legislature to abolish one of the key post-Suharto-era reforms regarding direct elections of local officials. The new law would give back to councils and provincial legislatures the power to choose mayors and governors.

During the early-morning vote on September 26  legislators from the Democrat Party of outgoing president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono proved to be as indecisive as their leader. Rather than vote against a bill they apparently opposed, they walked out. SBY, who was at the UN in New York, gave them no guidance. Their indecision handed victory to Prabowo’s backers, who argued direct election was foreign to Indonesian culture, expensive, and encouraged corruption.

“It will be a popular move for Prabowo controlled legislature to oppose any fuel price rises, but without ending the dependency on fuel subsidies Jokowi has little hope of fulfilling some big campaign promises.”

This was the elite striking back and working to prevent the rise of another populist like Jokowi with stronger allegiances to voters than the parties that nominate them.

It was a low point of SBY’s decade in office that hurt the Twitter-loving president most when #ShameonyouSBY trended globally. On October 2, the outgoing president was forced to issue two presidential decrees countermanding the law passed by the old legislature. Incoming members of the house have 30 days to confirm or reject the decrees.

Jokowi, who rose through the ranks from mayor to governor then president, called the change a “backward step”. The vote on SBY’s decrees will be the next test of his ability to influence the legislature. There are signs more politics being played by the amiable incoming president than he is given credit for; Prabowo’s coalition also might not be as strong as it looks. Even Golkar, the one-time party of the dictator Suharto, is inviting the new president to its birthday party.

Into this mix flies Prime Minister Tony Abbott with the goal to strengthen the “relationship with our most important neighbour”. This week Australian foreign policy has a Jakarta rather than Geneva focus. It is the kind of visit the Prime Minister should make to paint the bridge of bilateral relations, especially if he trying to persuade Jokowi not to skip his party at the G20 in Brisbane. November is a busy month for regional leaders, with the ASEAN summit in Naypyidaw in Myanmar and APEC in Beijing.

Foreign affairs is not a priority for Jokowi. While he has warned Australia about breaching Indonesia’s sovereignty, his attention is on petrol pumps, not boats. SBY leaves the country perched on a fiscal cliff as he vacates the palace. A slowing Indonesian economy means an anticipated $6.15 billion shortfall in taxes this year. The new president has increasingly little room to manoeuvre.

Last week, in an apparent Reuters scoop, an unnamed Jokowi advisor floated the possibility of a 46% rise in petrol and a 50% rise in diesel within two weeks of taking office. With this shock treatment the incoming government hopes to quickly fix its budget. It plans to use some of the $13 billion it would raise to compensate the poor who elected him; the car owning middle class who backed Prabowo will just be angry.

It will be a popular move for Prabowo controlled legislature to oppose any fuel price rises, but without ending the dependency on fuel subsidies Jokowi has little hope of fulfilling some big campaign promises. So far Jokowi’s presidency has been an idea; from today it begins, and on this issue we will quickly seen the kind of leader he is or is not.

*Jim Della-Giacoma is a visiting fellow in the department of social and political change in the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific.

Peter Fray

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