Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, centre, stands with her fellow Indonesian cabinet members

The symbolism was obvious and the choreography awkward when President Joko Widodo introduced his new cabinet on Sunday afternoon.

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This select group of Indonesia’s political and technocratic elite, dressed in white, waited in line on the palace steps until their names were called. Looking more excited than impatient, some ran across the lawn to join the line-up with their new leader, Vice-President Jusuf Kalla. In matching white shirts and black pants, they stood together as what the man who picked them dubbed the “working cabinet”. After a photo op, the President said the media were free to interview them.

Having run for office promising clean government, Jokowi had very publicly struggled for a week to find a complete set of 34 ministers untainted by corruption, especially among the political allies who helped him get elected. Those he revealed to the nation on the weekend will be sworn in on Monday.

Those powerful figures who never made the cut are sulking in the wings waiting for consolation prizes. If not placated, they might soon be troublemakers for the new administration. The eight whose names were originally given to the Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) a week ago but passed over were particularly humiliated.

The rapid leaking of the list caught Jokowi’s team off guard and showed that the commission is a political as much as investigative body; the frenzied media speculation amplified the hurt for people who were supposed to be Jokowi’s friends. It has been an awkward introduction to the way the game of national politics is played for the novice President.

The cabinet is a mix of professionals, politicians, Jokowi idealists and donors. Those from fifth president Megawati Soekarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) are most prominent.

“The cabinet shows how Megawati is a force behind the Jokowi administration. Many appointments are either her personal confidants, PDIP loyalists, or offspring of Sukarno-related figures,” said Achmad Sukarsono, an associate fellow at The Habibie Center think tank.

Megawati’s 41-year-old daughter, Puan Maharani, has been made Co-ordinating Minister for Human Development and Culture. Her former minister for trade and industry minister, Rini Soemarno, served as head of Jokowi’s transition team and is back in cabinet as Minister for State-Owned Enterprises. There are some inspired choices, such as energetic young university rector Anies Baswedan, who was spokesman during the campaign, as Minister for Culture and Elementary and Secondary Education. If he can defeat the sclerotic bureaucracy that holds back innovative teaching and learning, the whole country will benefit.

“Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi … [is] old enough to remember when Australians burnt the near-sacred Indonesian flag.”

There are eight women in cabinet, including airline owner Susi Pudjiastuti, whose airline Susi Air flew Jokowi around the archipelago during the campaign, and Indonesia’s first female Foreign Minister, Retno Lestari Priansari Marsudi, an ambassador and career diplomat.

In addition to PDIP, coalition allies National Democrat (Nasdem), Hanura, and the Islamic National Awakening Party (PKB) get seats at the table. As a reward for coming across after the election, the Islamic United Development Party (PPP) keeps control of the religious affairs ministry. Jokowi has not used cabinet seats as a tool to prise apart his rival Prabowo Subianto’s so-called Red and White Coalition, which controls the legislature.

The chairman of the Indonesian Human Rights Commission said over the weekend that if he had been given the same role as the KPK he would have recommended Defence Minister retired general Ryamizard Ryacudu not be appointed because of his role in overseeing brutal military operations against separatists in Aceh in the conflict that ended in 2005. But ardent nationalist Ryamizard served under Megawati as army chief of staff and has remained in her inner circle ever since.

It could have been worse. On many early lists was retired General Wiranto, the leader of Hanura and Indonesian military commander during the 1999 East Timor referendum. While it is unlikely he will ever tried, he has been under UN indictment for crimes against humanity since 2003.

For Australia, the focus will be on Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi. While she will now leave the post of ambassador to The Hague, she served in Australian as information secretary from 1990 to 1994. While in Canberra, her car was vandalised during protests against the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre. She’s old enough to remember when Australians burnt the near-sacred Indonesian flag.

Like many in the Indonesian foreign ministry she is known to be a nationalist and is proud to be Javanese, still speaking the language at home. She’s one of 26 members of the cabinet from the most populous island. It will put her in a good position to be simpatico with the President from Central Java. She also comes out of the economic stream of the ministry and will identify with his plans to prioritise selling Indonesia abroad. Her job will be to channel his thinking when called on to be his stand-in at world events, perhaps as soon as the G20 in Brisbane next month.

Jokowi, beset by huge challenges of his domestic agenda such as turning back the fuel subsidy, has yet to publicly commit to attending the event in Australia. Even before he can get to the big issues, his first task is to create a functioning government from people with whom he has not worked before and whose loyalties are not always to him. This team-building and the palace intrigues it will involve begin today. Even within his own camp, not everyone will be on his side.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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