Erick Thohir, the man to watch in Indonesian politics

The meteoric rise of State-Owned Enterprises Minister Erick Thohir has surprised many.
The meteoric rise of State-Owned Enterprises Minister Erick Thohir has surprised many.PHOTO: ST FILE

JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - For someone with little experience in politics and who is mostly known as a businessman, the meteoric rise of State-Owned Enterprises Minister Erick Thohir has surprised many, and it was his business-like attitude that won the heart of President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, who has continued to trust him to handle major issues.

The recent issuance of Presidential Regulation (Perpres) 82/2020, which gives Mr Erick a new job as the executive director of the government's Covid-19 Response and Economic Recovery Committee, is an indication of the high degree of trust shown by the president in the former businessman, political analysts say.

Mr Erick, 50, who was previously best known as the founder of media and entertainment holding firm PT Mahaka Media, has few ties to political parties. He is therefore seen as more independent than other politically affiliated Cabinet members, head of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) Political Research Centre Firman Noor said.

"Erick has relatively few political ties with political parties, which makes his calculations more independent and, therefore, as Jokowi wanted, easier to implement without having to bargain with so many stakeholders," Mr Firman said.

His role as head the Covid-19 recovery programme is the most recent in his long list of government assignments, which begun with his job as chairman of the Indonesia Asian Games Organising Committee.

He was widely credited as the man behind the successful staging of the 2018 Asian Games.

Following this role, he was tapped to lead the Jokowi-Ma'ruf Amin campaign team and, following Jokowi's reelection, was appointed as SOEs minister.

LIPI's Mr Firman said Mr Erick's impressive track record and growing job portfolio had garnered him the respect of members of the political coalition in the Jokowi government.

He said the appointment of Mr Erick to lead the post-Covid-19 recovery was also an indication that Jokowi had shifted his priority from public health to the economy.

"This could be generally read as Jokowi's effort to steer Indonesia's economic recovery. His focus is to rebuild and find new opportunities post-Covid-19," said Mr Firman.

Perpres 82/2020 initially raised eyebrows as it annulled Presidential Decree (Keppres) 7/2020, which was the legal basis for the establishment of the government's Covid-19 task force, which was headed by National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) chief Doni Monardo.

 
 

Many considered the setting up of the task force, consisting mostly of Jokowi's economic ministers, to be an indication that the president is now focusing primarily on the economy and not the ongoing health crisis.

The Perpres, however, also stipulates that the government's Covid-19 Response and National Economic Recovery Committee is to consist of a policy committee, a Covid-19 response task force - led by BNPB's Doni - as well as the economic recovery and transformation task force, led by Deputy SOE Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin.

Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) political observer Arya Fernandes said Mr Erick's appointment as the leader of the post-Covid-19 recovery team could be seen as Jokowi's effort to groom his potential successor.

"It could be that Pak Erick is a potential (presidential) candidate President Jokowi has in mind for 2024, which is why he was groomed with assignments that allow him to interact with policymakers, regional leaders and political parties," Mr Arya said.

Despite Mr Erick's growing role in Jokowi's administration, he has continued to perform poorly in opinion polls, with his electability rating as a possible presidential candidate remaining in the single digits, recent surveys have shown.

 
 

Mr Erick's electability rating stood at 1 per cent in a public opinion poll conducted by Jakarta-based pollster Indikator Politik Indonesia in July, trailing politicians like Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo, with an electability rating of 16.2 per cent, Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan at 15 per cent and Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto at 13.5 per cent.

In another poll conducted by Charta Politika, only 5.8 per cent of respondents thought Mr Erick was doing a good job, behind Mr Prabowo, who received a job approval rating of 12.8 percent and Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati at 11.5 per cent, respectively.

In the same Charta Politika poll, Mr Erick's electability rating was 2.1 percent, far behind Prabowo at 17.5 per cent, Ganjar at 15.9 per cent and Anies at 15 per cent.

Senior officials in Jokowi's administration have said that with his new role as leader of the Covid-19 recovery team, Mr Erick would have direct access to the President.

Cabinet Secretary Pramono Anung said the President had direct control over the committee's policies regarding the handling of Covid-19 and the national economic recovery and that the Perpres stipulated that the committee directly reported to Jokowi.