Indonesia’s President Remains Popular despite Declining Freedoms, Criticism of Economic Performance

Ronna Nirmala
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Indonesia’s President Remains Popular despite Declining Freedoms, Criticism of Economic Performance Indonesian President Joko Widodo gestures during an interview in North Kalimantan province, Indonesia, Oct. 19, 2021.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo enjoys an approval rating of nearly 70 percent as he starts his eighth year in office, according to one poll, although his government has been criticized for stifling free speech and for a lackluster economic performance.

Wednesday marked the anniversary of the day the former furniture salesman and ex-governor of Jakarta, who is popularly known as “Jokowi,” was inaugurated for a second five-year term as president of Southeast Asia’s largest democracy, on Oct. 20, 2019.

Jokowi’s job-approval rating stood at 68.5 percent in September, according to the results of a survey by Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting (SMRC), a private pollster. He had rated above 70 percent in polls conducted before the COVID-19 outbreak hit Indonesia.

“When asked about the condition of the political, legal and security situations, there’s a tendency that things are worsening. But that isn’t necessarily reflected in the public’s view of Jokowi,” Edbert Gani, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Jakarta think-tank, told BenarNews while commenting on the recent opinion surveys.

Indikator Politik Indonesia, another pollster, put Jokowi’s approval at 58 percent in a survey released at the end of September.

On social media, the president is a target of both praise and criticism.

“A simple leadership figure who is committed only to the national interest. May your good intentions bear sweet fruit, Mr. Jokowi,” Diandra Sari, a citizen who is among his supporters, said via Twitter last week.

Jokowi’s job rating remains relatively high at this point in his presidency when compared with that of his immediate predecessor. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who also served two terms as president, had a popularity rating of 46.2 percent in October 2011, the start of his eighth year in office, according to a survey at the time by Indonesian pollster LSI.

‘Afraid to talk’

It is hard to say how objective such polls are in gauging the public’s mood and its satisfaction over the central government’s performance, according to Ujang Komarudin, a political scientist at Indonesia’s Al-Azhar University.

“The political climate tends to be repressive, and people are afraid to talk,” Ujang told BenarNews.

Jokowi is Indonesia’s seventh president but only the fifth since the archipelago nation became a full-fledged democracy after Suharto, a former army general and longtime authoritarian ruler, fell from power in 1998. Jokowi is the country’s longest-serving civilian president to date.

However, ex-generals and others with ties to the military – such as Prabowo Subianto, the current defense minister and presidential candidate in 2014 and 2019 – occupy important posts in his administration, and are a magnet for criticism from human rights advocates.

According to Ujang, democratic freedoms in Indonesia have declined in recent years under Jokowi.

“When people get critical they are accused of insulting the president. The space for expression is suppressed and this should not happen in a democratic country,” he said.

Firman Noor, a political analyst at the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN), a state agency, concurred.

“The public are now increasingly afraid to speak up. This is a situation that, in my opinion, public surveys have failed to capture,” Firman told BenarNews.

Authorities have been accused of increasingly resorting to the Information and Electronic Transaction Law (ITE) to crack down on critics. Under the law, online defamation and spreading fake news are punishable by up to four and 10 years in prison, respectively.  

Agus Sunaryanto, an activist at Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW), said Jokowi’s administration had also undermined anti-graft efforts with a recent shake-up at the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK).

Suppression of free speech greeted public opposition to the moves at the anti-graft body, Agus alleged.

“Digital attacks on journalists, activists and academics have been so massive,” he said.

Last month, 58 KPK employees and investigators were fired from their posts after they failed the so-called national outlook exam, a civics test that was required as the agency transitioned from an independent institution to one under the executive branch of government.

The amendments that brought the agency under the control of the executive were passed in 2019. They fueled street protests as well as accusations that the government was using the law to weaken the independence of the agency fighting corruption in a country notorious for widespread graft.

When he was first elected president in 2014, Jokowi ran on a platform of purging government of deep-seated corruption.


The SMRC poll suggests that public satisfaction with Jokowi’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has recently improved, from 61.8 percent in May, to 64.6 percent in September.

“In general, people still believe that President Jokowi will be able to bring Indonesia out of the crisis caused by the COVID-19 outbreak,” said SMRC Executive Director Sirojudin Abbas.

But Firman, the BRIN analyst, said the government had acted with urgency only after a surge in cases driven by the highly transmissible Delta variant in July. At the time, hospitals were overwhelmed with patients and daily fatalities spiked to as high as 2,000.

The outbreak had subsided in recent weeks, with daily new infections having dropped below 1,000, and deaths below 100.

“We could have enjoyed what we have now six months ago, had the government listened to scientists and experts,” Firman said.

So far, Indonesia has recorded at least 4.23 million COVID-19 cases resulting in more than 143,000 deaths.


The SMRC survey indicated that 50.7 percent Indonesians were satisfied with the government’s economic performance, a drop from 61.3 percent in May.

Public criticism of the administration’s handling of the economy has been a constant thorn in Jokowi’s presidency. During his seven years in office, he has shuffled his cabinet at least four times, including sacking his chief finance minister during the first reshuffle.

Among those polled, 60.6 percent said their household income had dropped, while 32.3 percent said their income remained the same.

“This assessment is stable compared to the May 2021 survey. There were no signs of recovery between May and September,” Sirojudin said.

Gani of CSIS said Indonesians, especially those in rural areas, were more focused on economic issues during the pandemic than on hot-button political issues, such as the passage of the controversial Jobs Creation Law. Critics of the president had said the law could undermine labor protections and environmental conservation efforts.

“Right now, their main concern is their economy, which has been hit by the pandemic,” Gani said.


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