Indonesia President Jokowi plans powerful 'kitchen cabinet' to bolster reforms

Indonesia President Joko Widodo (left) speaks as Vice President Jusuf Kalla looks on during a meeting with economy ministers at Widodo's office in the palace, Jakarta on Oct 30. Indonesia's new president, Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, aims to tighten hi
Indonesia President Joko Widodo (left) speaks as Vice President Jusuf Kalla looks on during a meeting with economy ministers at Widodo's office in the palace, Jakarta on Oct 30. Indonesia's new president, Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, aims to tighten his control over a potentially unruly cabinet with the introduction next month of a "kitchen cabinet" of trusted aides to help him push through reforms in South-east Asia's biggest economy. -- PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia's new president, Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, aims to tighten his control over a potentially unruly cabinet with the introduction next month of a "kitchen cabinet" of trusted aides to help him push through reforms in South-east Asia's biggest economy.

Widodo, who won an election on promises to clean up corruption seen as deeply entrenched in political and commercial life, will give the four-member team extensive powers including designing key policies and setting targets for ministries.

The move follows Widodo's potentially unpopular decision on Monday to impose fuel price hikes to balance the budget, and is a further sign he wants to stamp his authority on a country whose economy is growing at its slowest pace in five years.

"The presidential office will be a channel for managing the cabinet," Andi Widjajanto, cabinet secretary and one of the members of the so-called presidential office told Reuters in a rare interview.

"It will be impossible in this cabinet for ministers and ministries to just do their own thing," Widjajanto said. "Many of (Widodo's) programmes are interlinked, so coordination will be key."

He added that Widodo got the idea after meeting former British prime minister Tony Blair in July.

When in power, Blair alienated some ministers who felt that advisers were making important decisions instead of the cabinet. Political analysts said such resentment, and resistance, was likely to complicate Widodo's task in Indonesia.

"Only in some cases will this office be able to elicit cooperation, because many ministers are likely to be obstructionist," said political analyst Kevin O'Rourke.

The "kitchen cabinet" is not without precedent in Indonesia.

Widodo's predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, set up a unit designed to evaluate ministers' performance, but its impact was limited by political opposition and a series of high-profile corruption scandals that claimed three ministers in Yudhoyono's second term.

But this time it's different, said Widjajanto, who is preparing the legal framework that will empower the team. "Previously it used to be like a schoolteacher handing out report cards, and that created tension among the ministers," he said. "We will no longer evaluate ministers but rather their projects." The team is already flexing its muscles.

On recommendations from the new team, the energy ministry this month fired an underperforming senior official and appointed a corruption activist to head the oil and gas regulator. Industry members welcomed moves to clean up the ministry that has long been plagued by graft.

The team, which will meet more often with the president than the rest of the cabinet, will be led by a chief of staff due to be appointed before the end of January 2015, and will be fully operational by February.

Other members include State Secretary Pratikno, who studied with Widodo, and National Development Planning Chief Andrinof Chaniago. Both have been close to him since before he bid for the presidency this year.

Widjajanto, a defence and foreign affairs expert, has been a trusted adviser through Widodo's presidential campaign and is close to the chief of his party, Megawati Sukarnoputri.

The combination of academics and close advisers may offset some concerns that Widodo, a newcomer on the national political scene, would be undercut by political forces in his cabinet.

Widodo was last month forced to include more political appointees in his cabinet than originally planned to appease the parties in his coalition.

So far, ministers have been public in their support. "This government has no ministerial programmes - it's all the president's programme, all the president's decision,"Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs Indroyono Soesilo told Reuters in an interview - a sentiment echoed by other ministers. "We just try to implement what is decided by the president."