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Oligarchs with a country: Jokowi's team

By Duncan Graham - posted Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Has Indonesia's new president Joko (Jokowi) Widodo read the ancient works of Chinese general Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War?

In personal interviews with local media questions have focussed on his breakfasts and wife Iriana's dress. Like her husband she is no fashionista, preferring plain and simple, which will infuriate the establishment's elaborately coiffed ice matrons shouldering Gucci bags of sharpened hatpins.

There has been no interest in what books are on the couple's bedside table, probably because the reporters – like many Indonesians – are not great readers of anything longer than a 140 character tweet.


Nonetheless Indonesia's seventh president seems to understand the value of a quote attributed to the warrior who lived five centuries before Christ: Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.

How else to explain Jokowi singling out his 'friend' Prabowo Subianto for applause during the 20 October Presidential inauguration ceremony? The former general with a black human-rights record was Jokowi's bitter opponent in the 9 July direct election. Prabowo still runs a ruthless campaign to unseat the man who beat him for the top job by eight million votes.

Another answer is that Jokowi is Javanese, an ethnic group that believes in harmony and prefers to say 'yes' instead of 'no' to avoid embarrassment, even when the negative is meant – a trait that can drive naïve Westerners nuts. Perhaps the gesture went some way to placating a man with boiling anger and cash enough to create havoc and destroy the people's choice. It certainly put Jokowi on the high moral ground, if such a position exists in politics.

If Jokowi truly considers his rival a friend, what constitutes an enemy? Prabowo's campaign trawled pits of slime in bids to destroy Jokowi, claiming he was a Christian planning to eradicate Islam, a communist Chinese born in Singapore and had fathered an illegitimate son. By comparison, the Liberal's campaign against PM Julia Gillard was sweet and civilised.

Prabowo, who is not a parliamentarian, has assembled a coalition of parties that outnumber Jokowi's supporters in the national legislature. This group has already passed an anti-democracy law cancelling regional elections in favour of Jakarta selecting district governors, regents and mayors.

This was the system used by the authoritarian General Suharto who led the nation for 32 years; he was also Prabowo's former father-in-law.


Jokowi was a furniture trader from a small town in Central Java before being elected as local mayor, then governor of Jakarta by popular vote – an impossible political journey in the future should the new law stand.

He has no known family connections with Jakarta's military, business, high-born or religious elite, qualities that make him attractive to ordinary Indonesians, but poison to the corrupt and powerful bent on retrieving their authority.

Commented Driyarkara School of Philosophy academic B Herry-Priyono in The Jakarta Post: 'Most countries have oligarchs, but in Indonesia the oligarchs have a country. They have been lording it over us for so long, arresting the nation from its march toward the common good."

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About the Author

Duncan Graham is a Perth journalist who now lives in Indonesia in winter and New Zealand in summer. He is the author of The People Next Door (University of Western Australia Press) and Doing Business Next Door (Wordstars). He blogs atIndonesia Now.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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