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nathan allen

Indonesian presidential candidate Joko Widodo talks to the media during his visit at a reservoir development project in Jakarta on July 22, 2014.DITA ALANGKARA/The Associated Press

On July 22, electoral authorities announced that Joko Widodo (a.k.a. Jokowi) had won Indonesia's presidential election. From the Canadian viewpoint, this is a favourable outcome. Unlike his rival, Prabowo Subianto, Jokowi does not have a record of human-rights violations that could impede relations between our countries, and of the two candidates, he was the most open to economic co-operation with the outside world. The warm relations between Canada and Indonesia look set to continue.

Jokowi will be walking into a difficult job though. In the short term, he will need to sooth tensions with his opponents, some of whom still do not accept his victory. Once in office, he will face challenges putting together a government, working with a skeptical legislature and maintaining peace within his own party. Given Indonesia's institutional and partisan constraints, we should not expect to see major reforms from the modest former mayor of Solo. Instead, Jokowi is likely to focus on the basics of administration, which happens to be his specialty.

Jokowi's first task will be reconciliation. The final election announcement was preceded by almost two weeks of tense ballot counting, with both Jokowi and Prabowo claiming victory. The final result put Jokowi at 53 per cent, Prabowo at 47 per cent; it was Indonesia's closest ever presidential race, underlining the polarized political atmosphere. Prabowo's team is challenging the outcome in court, alleging massive electoral violations. The challenge includes the implausible claim that foreign hackers manipulated the website of the electoral authorities. He has also asked foreign leaders not to recognize the result.

But these efforts are unlikely to succeed. Many world leaders – including Prime Minister Stephen Harper – have already congratulated Jokowi. More importantly, the current president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose party publicly backed Prabowo, has recognized the result. Prabowo's campaign chair even noted that Jokowi's margin of victory is too wide to be accounted for by fraud. The court challenge, however, could prolong the country's political polarization. There is a danger passions could lead to social conflict.

A tone of reconciliation and co-operation will be needed as the president-elect looks to put together a governing coalition. The parties that backed Prabowo will control a majority of legislative seats, but their commitment to Prabowo's cause is doubtful. Whereas many Canadians are skeptical of coalitions, Indonesians treat it as a given that almost all parties will join the government. As Prabowo's prospects fade, more potential allies will be available.

Jokowi could have trouble keeping them happy, though. In the past, Indonesian governments have been built by providing coalition partners with key government posts. During the campaign, Jokowi promised to appoint officials based on merit rather than partisan credentials. He has already started an online engagement process where the public can provide recommendations on cabinet selection. After satisfying the parties that backed him from the beginning, Jokowi could end up with little to offer latecomers without spurning his grassroots supporters.

Jokowi's government will need support in the legislature if he wants to pass any major initiatives. Unlike the majority-rules legislative conflict Canadians are used to, Indonesia typically passes laws by consensus, which means governments need significant legislative support to advance their agendas. Even bringing parties into the government may not be enough to win them over as legislative allies though. Finding a consensus among Indonesia's many competing legislation interests will test the skills of the new president, a neophyte in national politics.

But it is not just competitors whom Jokowi needs to win over. Relations within his own political party could prove an even greater headache. Jokowi is the first president in the democratic era to not control his own political party. The chairwoman of Jokowi's political party, Megawati Sukarnoputri, is also a former president, and she jealously guards power for her and her family. The party's loyalty therefore cannot be taken for granted.

Relations between chairwoman and the president-elect were reportedly frayed during the campaign, as Megawati initially dithered on nominating the popular Jokowi. Now that their party has won, Megawati will want to reward old allies Jokowi does not feel indebted to, while Jokowi will seek to build a partisan infrastructure loyal to himself. Whether these two personalities can effectively function in one party is by no means certain.

The need to hold together a government, negotiate with the legislature, and navigate intra-party squabbles, all in a polarized atmosphere, will constrain the new president. Big initiatives requiring the support of the parties will likely be placed on the backburner.

This might not be such a bad thing for Jokowi. Above all, the thing he is known for is a commitment to providing efficient administration. Reforming and improving the performance of the existing state services is one of the few areas the new president will exert considerable influence. As a leader in Solo, and later Jakarta, Jokowi became known for blusukan, or impromptu visits, sometimes to front-line government offices to test their responsiveness. Jokowi will look to scale-up this governance style once in office.

While blusukan may get harder to do as president, it signals a commitment to effectively deliver services and hold officials to account for their performance. Jokowi will have trouble getting the government to expand into new areas, but tweaking the delivery of existing services is an important enough job with the potential to reduce corruption, facilitate commerce and improve daily living for the country's more than 250 million citizens.

Indonesia has been identified as one of Canada's priority markets and is already a country of focus for development assistance. Canada should look for opportunities to assist Indonesia as its new government sets governance, economic and social priorities. Jokowi's victory ensured Indonesia will not soon be returning to the politics of the authoritarian era, thereby avoiding a real setback to Canada-Indonesia relations. The close call should remind us not to take the partnership for granted.

Nathan Allen is a research fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada

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