Politics is spreading covid-19 in Indonesia and the Philippines

Politics is spreading covid-19 in Indonesia and the Philippines

Presidents Jokowi and Rodrigo Duterte act tough, but can’t get things done

In the face of covid-19, world leaders have fallen into four camps. The first group denies there is a problem: think of Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan, who fined his subjects for wearing face masks before ordering everyone to don them as a protection against “dust”. The second group recognises the threat and counters it with maximum coercion, regardless of civil liberties: think of Xi Jinping in China. The third group, which includes most democracies, handles the tricky trade-off between crushing the virus and crushing everything that is enjoyable in life reasonably well. The fourth group tries to act tough, but does so incompetently. Here, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and President Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, of Indonesia stand out. Their two archipelagic countries have fared far worse than the rest of South-East Asia, with around 200,000 and 160,000 known coronavirus cases respectively and still rising fast.

Mr Duterte is coarse, Jokowi soft-spoken: the two seem cut from different cloth. Yet both were mayors who won national power because voters saw in them something new. They were not from the usual dynasties that dominate their countries’ politics, nor did they spout the geekspeak of global elitists. As mayors they got stuff done: in Mr Duterte’s case, “fighting crime” in Davao by encouraging vigilantes to murder drug suspects; in Jokowi’s, by building things like expressways in Solo and Jakarta, the capital. Men of action, they promised to roll up their sleeves and apply their business model to the country.

Yet the simple-sounding approach crumpled at the first encounter with the virus. As cases rose, Jokowi dithered and flip-flopped over lockdown and distancing measures. Partly that was pandering to conservative Muslim leaders who have long accused him of insufficient piety. In April he faced pressure to allow the mudik, Muslim migrants’ annual return home to mark the end of Ramadan. Its eventual ban came too late to staunch covid-19’s spread. But, mainly, Jokowi feared popular unrest if he shut down the economy. Having asked to be judged on the economy, he was reluctant to see his beloved infrastructure projects halted. Either way, Jokowi was hardly the strong, resolute ruler.

Mr Duterte acted far more quickly, ordering a lockdown of greater Manila, the capital. He called on the army and police to shoot violators of lockdown rules—classic strongman stuff. But in practice, enforcing the rules has fallen more to local governments than to the security forces under the president’s control.

As it happens, local police and village watchmen armed with staves have often been as heavy-handed as the president could have wished. But that is pure coincidence. In practice, the local power-brokers in the periphery of the Philippines—mayors, plantation owners, armed insurgents or drug gangs with friends in the police—do what they like for their own benefit, regardless of what anybody in Manila, including Mr Duterte, instructs. The political apparatus simply is not suited to effective authoritarianism.