Can Jokowi Step Beyond 'Trumpian' Playbook in Pandemic?

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  • By: Darmawan Triwibowo KURAWAL Foundation

    When Joko "Jokowi" Widodo got elected as the sixth president in 2014, his position as a political outsider made him Southeast Asia’s instant democratic poster boy. However, six years later, the leader Times dubbed "a new force of democracy" would follow the playbook of President Donald Trump – the political wrecking ball of Barack Obama’s legacy – in the fight to combat COVID-19, the biggest crisis of his presidency. 

    As Windsor Mann from the Washington Times wrote, "The only thing worse than a pandemic is having Donald Trump as your president during a pandemic". On January 30, as the World Health Organization was declaring a global emergency, Trump said: “We only have five people. Hopefully, everything’s going to be great.” The Guardian finds that it took more than six weeks for the Trump administration to make the first policy action. As a result, his administration lost the early opportunity to contain the virus, either by locking down hotspots or through aggressive testing to isolate those infected. By May 6, the US reportedly saw 1,211,600 people have been infected with the coronavirus and at least 71,100 have died in the country. 

    President Trump’s stubbornness to stick to his tested political playbook does not help him to improve the effectiveness of his administration response. His playbook is straightforward of 4 Ds: deny (the facts, the science, the critics, admit no mistake); deflect (shift attention onto other matters, build a concerted blame game), divide (polarizing opinion, mobilizing supporters to attack the attackers, spinning conspiracy theories and dismissing serious issues as “presidential harassment”) and destroy (punish people who oppose him). 

    His decision to halt funding to the WHO while his government reviews to “[…] the WHO's role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of coronavirus” is classic of the "Trumpian" playbook to destroy his enemy. The approach does not work, and people take notice. According to a CNN survey on April 10, only 45 percent of Americans approve of Trump’s coronavirus response. A new survey from The Associated Press on April 24 showed just 28 percent of Americans said they were regularly getting information from Trump about the coronavirus and only 23 percent said they had a high level of trust in what the president was telling the public

    Unfortunately, President Jokowi's administration’s earlier response to the crisis has similarly been marked by denial, complacency and a lack of transparency. 

    Even after announcing the first cases in March and the establishment of a national task force, policy controversies regarding key government policies, such as the release of prisoners from overcrowded prisons and spending on economic relief package, have been deflecting public attention from the real problem: the deepening of the public health crisis. 

    Moreover, President Jokowi continuously kneecapped the ability of local governments to initiate lockdown by playing the “national authority” card, effectively turning a public health crisis into a political showdown that invigorates his base but further polarizes citizens, while allowing police to suppress critics. 

    Unfortunately for President Jokowi, people do notice the weaknesses in his tactical approach to politics, his ad-hoc leadership style, and the lack of strategic thinking in his government to respond effectively to the pandemic as shown by his dipping figures in the poll. 

    A survey from Indo Barometer on his 100th day in office in February – prior to the pandemic – finds that 70.1 percent of respondents were satisfied with his performance. However, three post-COVID- 19 surveys on March (by Litbang Kompas) and April (by Median and the Saiful Muljani Research Center, which focus more on the government handling of the pandemic, show a significantly lower and gradually declining level of approval from 58.5 percent in March to 52-52.4 percent in April. 

    Will it be too late for President Jokowi to reverse his playbook? The “relatively smaller” scale of the pandemic compared to the US could still give him leeway. Crisis always gives leaders the opportunity to show their greatness by unifying the nation and take the right steps toward recovery. Most citizens still support him. 

    So it is important for Jokowi to continuously show his citizens that he understands the magnitude and severity of the problem, that he stands with his people, and sees the problem in the right order: public health before economics and politics. But will he change course? Similar to Ben Bland from Lowly Institute, I feel skeptical of the prospect. During his first five years in office, the President chose to stay in his comfort zone, doing only what he knows and stop abruptly when dealing with complex issues beyond his grasp. The current pandemic also looks too complex an issue for Jokowi’s political salesmanship to handle. 

    Unlike Trump, Jokowi will have less political incentive to change since he is not running for re-election. He frequently said that in his second term he will have no burden and can act freely. Lastly, like Trump, Jokowi is an awkward nation unifier. Both of them thrive from the public divisiveness and polarization that energize their support base. Therefore, it is one of the great paradoxes of Jokowi’s Trumpian playbook during the pandemic that he may have put many of his own loyal supporters in mortal peril. He will seek to change if he truly cares. 

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