Indonesia's New President Runs Into Political Challenges

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Just over three months in office, there are serious questions as to whether Joko Widodo can stand up to the national political elites and their vested interests.

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, BYLINE: It's been a short honeymoon for Joko Widodo, the new president of the world's most populous Muslim majority nation, Indonesia. Jokowi, as he's known, is the country's first president to come from outside the political elite. He's been in power for just over 100 days. And already, he's in a political test of strength that is overshadowing his early achievements. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has the story from Jakarta.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SALAM DUA JARI")

SLANK: (Singing in Indonesian).

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: On election night, Jokowi and his supporters celebrated their victory at a concert headlined by Indonesian rockers Slank. To many Indonesians, the music's message was this - if a red-and-blue-plaid-shirt-wearing, heavy metal loving, former furniture salesman like Jokowi could rise from the slums to the presidential palace, then any Indonesian can. Young voters across Asia are demanding more accountable politicians and more government services. And that's what's behind the Jokowi phenomenon, says Jakarta-based political analyst Paul Rowland.

PAUL ROWLAND: There're a lot of special things about his story. There's a lot of things that I think make him unique. But the base issue with this is that Indonesians demanded something different. And they got it.

KUHN: In his previous job as governor of the capital, Jakarta, Jokowi provided free health care and education to the poor. In his first month as president, he did the same for poor people nationwide. He also took advantage of falling oil prices to cut the country's huge fuel subsidies. Paul Rowland says that the savings will allow Jokowi to upgrade the crumbling transportation networks that are holding back Indonesia's economy.

ROWLAND: Freeing up potentially $18 billion from the national budget with which you can build many different pieces of signature infrastructure. I think if he did nothing else in his first six months, that was something that will buy him a lot of time.

KUHN: He might have bought more time if he hadn't nominated a new chief of police who was later implicated in a corruption probe. This touched off a feud between the police and Indonesia's anti-corruption agency. Jokowi appeared caught between his own party's power brokers, who put forward the candidate for police chief, and the public. Hikmahanto Juwana is an advisor to the president. He and others advised Jokowi to listen to the public and nominate someone else for police chief, which he did.

HIKMAHANTO JUWANA: We want an organization which deals with legal issues, law enforcement - has to be clean because we want to keep that organization respected by the people in this country.

KUHN: Some Indonesians wonder whether Jokowi has what it takes to stand up to the vested interests and to duplicate his local successes on a national scale. So far, Jokowi's core supporters are trying to be patient. Sinnal Belgur is deputy head of a nationwide pro-Jokowi movement called Projo.

SINNAL BELGUR: (Through interpreter) I would say Jokowi is at the center of a dark circle. It is very hard for us to get access to him, unlike in the past. We're still trying to establish direct communications with him because we see people with vested interests are whispering in his ear.

KUHN: Jokowi has adopted a tougher stance on foreign policy that has cost him some support in foreign capitals. He has rejected appeals for clemency by six foreigners who were convicted of drug trafficking and executed. And he has blown up foreign boats illegally fishing in Indonesian waters. Advisor Hikmahanto Juwana says Jokowi has redefined Indonesia's diplomatic mantra of a thousand friends and no enemies.

JUWANA: Now President Jokowi wants to interpret that to become all nations are friends until our sovereignty is degraded or our national interest is jeopardized.

KUHN: This more assertive stance appears to go over well with his domestic audience. And for the moment, domestic political challenges appear likely to take up most of his time. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Jakarta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.