Indonesia's new president, Joko Widodo, was an outsider

Indonesia's new president, Joko Widodo, was an outsider

Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s first leader without deep roots in the era of dictator Suharto, was sworn in as president Monday but faces huge challenges to enact a bold reform agenda.

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Indonesian President-elect Joko Widodo (R) and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (L) wave to media at the Parliament building shortly before Widodo's swearing ceremony on October 20, 2014.
Indonesian President-elect Joko Widodo (R) and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (L) wave to media at the Parliament building shortly before Widodo's swearing ceremony on October 20, 2014.
Photo: EPA

Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s first leader without deep roots in the era of dictator Suharto, was sworn in as president Monday but faces huge challenges to enact a bold reform agenda.

The inauguration, which was attended by foreign dignitaries including US Secretary of State John Kerry and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, capped a remarkable rise for a softly-spoken politician who was brought up in a riverside slum.

Widodo, known by his nickname Jokowi, worked his way up through local politics before securing the presidency in July following a close race against controversial ex-general Prabowo Subianto.

He is the country’s first president from outside an ageing band of political and military figures who have ruled the world’s third-biggest democracy since the end of the three-decade Suharto dictatorship in 1998.

But fears are growing that a hostile parliament dominated by parties that opposed Widodo at the election, and the new leader’s status as a novice in national politics, could make it impossible for him to push through reforms aimed at reviving Southeast Asia’s top economy and helping society’s poorest.

At a ceremony in parliament, Widodo, wearing a black suit and traditional cap, stood for the national anthem alongside outgoing president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, before taking the oath.

"In the name of God, I swear that I will fulfil my obligation as the president of Indonesia as best as I can and as fairly as possible," he said.

Crowds had gathered across Jakarta to celebrate the inauguration of Widodo, a 53-year-old former furniture exporter who won legions of fans with his man of the people image during his time as Jakarta governor.

"I am proud of him. I don't mind spending money to travel here to watch this first-hand," said Sunti, who like many Indonesians goes by one name and had travelled a long distance from her hometown for the inauguration.

Critical moment for economy

 

But the joy of the inauguration is likely to be short-lived, analysts warn, as Widodo faces the task of leading the world’s fourth most populous country, with 250 million people spread over more than 17,000 islands, at a critical moment.

Growth in Southeast Asia’s top economy is at five-year lows, corruption remains rampant, and fears are mounting that support for the Islamic State group could spawn a new generation of radicals in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country.

Widodo has set out an ambitious reform agenda to tackle the country’s many problems, but there is concern the famously argumentative parliament could prove a hindrance.

However Prabowo’s appearance at the inauguration was the second sign of easing tensions in just a few days after he unexpectedly met Widodo on Friday for the first time since the election and pledged support, and raises hopes for the new leader’s prospects.

Widodo’s first test will be to reduce the huge fuel subsidies that eat up about a fifth of the budget, a move economists say is urgently needed but which risks sparking large street protests.

He is also expected to announce his new cabinet later in the week.

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