President Jokowi's outburst over Covid-19 spells an imminent Cabinet reshuffle

Acting totally out of character, a visibly angry Indonesian President Joko Widodo had lambasted his ministers for their "lack of sense of crisis" in handling the coronavirus pandemic, and threatened to replace some of them in a Cabinet reshuffle.

With a raised voice and furrowed brows, he said at the Cabinet meeting on June 18: "I'll say as it is. There is no significant progress, there isn't.

"I see that many are acting as if everything is normal. That irks me. Don't you have feelings, we are in a crisis," he added.

A footage of the dressing down was released by the presidential palace only 10 days later, or last Sunday.

A Presidential Secretariat spokesman had said time was needed to review if the content was in the public interest and to get the president's permission.

There was much for Mr Joko, better known as Jokowi, to be angry about.

With more than 55,000 cases and over 2,800 deaths now, Indonesia ranks the highest in South-east Asia in the number of cases and fatalities.

And as cities and provinces across the country, including Jakarta, shifted gradually to ease restrictive measures, the number of new cases of infections has been rising to some 1,000 a day, as compared to hundreds previously.

Many workers were laid off, businesses hurt, and medical workers stretched and risked their lives. Yet, government funds allocated to help these vulnerable groups have not been disbursed quickly enough, the president said.

He had reserved his most stinging rebuke for the health ministry, which had spent a puny 1.5 per cent of the 75 trillion rupiah (S$7.7 billion) budget.

A chunk of that money would have gone towards buying medical equipment and special allowances for medical doctors and nurses.

 
 
 

Analysts told The Straits Times that the president's uncharacteristic admonishment was a clear indication that a Cabinet reshuffle is imminent and some heads will roll.

Mr Burhanuddin Muhtadi, executive director of polling agency Indikator Politik, believed that the late release of the footage was deliberate.

"This is clearly not a coincidence, but there is an element of intent to remind the internal Cabinet that the 'threat' of the reshuffle was no joke.

"Secondly, it's also to test the waters to gauge public reaction if a reshuffle were to take place," he said.

The spotlight has inevitably fallen on a number of ministries in addition to the health ministry, such as the social affairs ministry for the slow distribution of social assistance, and those related to the economy for not having sufficiently supported businesses.

Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto is especially in danger of losing his position, analysts said, noting that the president had again railed at his ministry on Monday and ordered that it simplify procedures and speed up the payout of the emergency funds.

The military doctor had been famously quoted for asking Indonesians to ward off the virus through prayers.

A coalition of civil society organisations on Monday had called for his dismissal for "showing an arrogant and anti-science attitude by playing down the issue since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak", The Jakarta Post reported.

Critics said the poor handling of the pandemic was a reflection of Mr Joko's own failings as the country's leader, and he was simply pushing the blame on his subordinates.

Some also said the test had come early for the ministers, who were sworn into office only in October last year, after Mr Joko won his second and final presidential election earlier in April.

 
 

But Dr Adriana Elisabeth, political analyst from think-tank Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), said while the coronavirus had struck unexpectedly, the ministers had no excuse for not performing.

Any minister involved in the management of the crisis risks getting replaced, she said, adding: "When people accept the job to assist the president, they must be capable and be prepared for whatever situation that arises. If they can't, then just remove them."

A Cabinet reshuffle is not unusual in Indonesia, and typically takes place in the first year of a president's term.

A change of ministers might trigger an internal fight among political parties, which will insist any replacement should be with someone from the same party.

Mr Burhanuddin said a reshuffle was long overdue.

He added: "The Covid-19 outbreak has demonstrated the incapability of some ministers, especially the Health Minister, to handle the pandemic.

"There's no need to wait for a long time to reshuffle people in failing ministries."