Widodo sworn-in as Indonesia's new leader

Widodo sworn-in as Indonesia's new leader

Monday, October 20, 2014 5:27 am

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.

New Indonesia president, Joko Widodo, with predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, left

New Indonesia president, Joko Widodo, with predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, left

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.

During his first speech as president, he called for unity following the most bitterly fought election in Indonesian history.

Joko Widodo and his wife, Ariana

Joko Widodo and his wife, Ariana

“Unity and working hand in hand are prerequisites for us to be a great nation,” Widodo, a 53-year-old former furniture exporter who won legions of fans during his time as Jakarta governor, told parliament. “We will never become a great nation if we are stuck with division.”

“This is a historic moment for us all to move together, to work and work,” the president urged, and insisted that the government would help citizens right across the world’s biggest archipelago nation.

The new leader also referred to Prabowo as “my best friend” during the speech, and the ex-general responded by standing up and giving a salute.

It was the latest sign of a thaw between the pair, after Prabowo only grudgingly conceded defeat and his supporters threatened to block the new leader’s reforms in parliament. However, analysts cautioned the reconciliation may be short-lived.

Lawmakers and visiting dignitaries packed out the parliament for the ceremony, and there was applause when Prabowo walked in after speculation he would not attend, the latest sign of a thaw after weeks of political tensions.

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.

After the ceremony, Widodo and his new vice president, Jusuf Kalla, will travel in a horse-drawn carriage accompanied by a parade to the presidential palace.

In the evening the new leader, a heavy metal fan, is expected to join rock bands on stage at an outdoor concert.

About 24,000 police and military personnel were deployed to secure the day’s events.

– Critical moment for economy –

But the euphoria of the inauguration is likely to be short-lived, analysts warn, as Widodo faces up to 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 notoriously fractious 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 Friday for the first time since the election and pledged support, and raises hopes for the new leader’s prospects.

In recent weeks, Prabowo’s supporters in parliament had used their majority to abolish the direct election of local leaders, a move opposed by Widodo, and win key posts in the legislature.

But analysts cautioned it was too early to say if the reconciliation would last or help Widodo.

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.

Kerry’s attendance was in part aimed at seeking support from Southeast Asian nations in the fight against the Islamic State group, which has taken over vast swathes of Iraq and Syria.

*AFP report

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