People queue to purchase cooking oil

People queue to purchase cooking oil provided by the local government in Surabaya on February 18, 2022, in an effort to stabilize prices due to shortages. (Photo: Juni KRISWANTO / AFP)

Out of the Frying Pan Into the Fire: Cooking Oil Burns Jokowi’s Popularity

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Rising inflation in Indonesia, especially for cooking oil prices, has dented President Joko Widodo’s popularity. If left unresolved, his party’s showing in the next elections could well be adversely affected by this issue.

Entering 2022, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) seemed poised to be at the apex of his power. After the National Mandate Party (PAN) joined his government coalition in August 2021, some 82 per cent of lower house seats were controlled by Jokowi’s coalition, and he regained public trust after his popularity dipped to 59 per cent in September 2021. By January 2022, Kompas’s national survey showed that Jokowi’s approval rating reached 73.9 per cent, a record high since he became president in 2014.

Jokowi’s popularity and parliamentary clout explain why his government succeeded in pushing through controversial bills such as Law No.11 of 2020 on job creation, the new Mining Law No.3 of 2020, as well as Law No.3 of 2022 on moving Indonesia’s capital from Jakarta to ‘Nusantara’. This streak of legislative successes even led some politicians surrounding the president to float the idea of extending his presidential term or even postponing the 2024 election to 2027.

However, Jokowi has denied any speculation that he wishes to stay in power past the two five-year terms that each democratically elected Indonesian president is allowed. Following massive demonstrations against rising inflation exemplified by the increase in Indonesians’ living costs, especially the price of cooking oil, Jokowi has recognised that current levels of public anger can severely damage his popularity and legacy.

Indeed, Jokowi’s image suffered when footage of Indonesians queueing in long lines to buy cooking oil was broadcast all over television, creating public disillusionment which led to his deteriorating approval ratings. As cooking oil is an indispensable product for Indonesians’ daily meals, every government in power has taken care not to let the price of this commodity rise beyond their means, mainly through subsidising the low-cost version that most poor Indonesians use. However, global inflation and supply issues resulting from the war in Ukraine have put the Widodo administration in a tough situation.

The scarcity of cooking oil, felt by ordinary Indonesians through price increases and dwindling supplies, was one issue that helped to dent Jokowi’s approval rating, which dropped to 71 per cent in February 2022, according to Indikator’s national survey. By March 2022, one consultancy (Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting, SMRC) reported a 64.6 per cent approval rating, while another survey by Indikator conducted from April 14-19 2022 had a rating of just 59.9 per cent.

If this burning issue is not resolved by the time hustings for the next elections are underway, Jokowi’s legacy would be toast.

From April 20-24, 2022, Indikator conducted a national telephone survey of 1,219 respondents from across Indonesia to quickly capture public opinion related to a case handled by the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) which investigated the Director-General of Foreign Trade at the Ministry of Trade and three business leaders from large palm oil companies for alleged corruption related to crude palm oil export facilities.

Interestingly, President Jokowi’s approval rating improved slightly from 59.9 per cent to 64.1 per cent in this survey, which suggests that his statement supporting the AGO and his subsequent announcement banning palm oil exports until Indonesia’s domestic supply crisis was resolved might have arrested the downward trend in his popularity.

These survey findings underscore how crucially the cooking oil issue and inflation in general affect the Indonesian president’s approval ratings. In the earlier April survey, 84 per cent of survey respondents claimed to have experienced difficulty in purchasing cooking oil. After the AGO’s naming of the suspects in the corruption case and Jokowi’s announcement on banning palm oil exports, respondents’ level of perceived difficulty in finding cooking oil decreased to 74.9 per cent. About half of those surveyed (50.8 per cent of 1,219 respondents) knew about the corruption case, and of these, about three-quarters believed that there is corruption involving the Ministry of Trade’s high-ranking officials and private companies in granting licences for palm oil exports. Interestingly, the survey respondents who rated Jokowi more highly tended to believe that the Director-General of Trade and private companies were guilty of corruption, and that the AGO would be able to solve the corruption case.

Jokowi’s announcement of a palm oil export ban was in line with public sentiment, despite the fact that palm oil farmers opposed the ban. 73 per cent of survey respondents were aware that the domestic supply of cooking oil was low because big business players exported the commodity to earn higher profits, while 66 per cent agreed that the government temporarily stopped cooking oil exports to ensure its domestic availability. 86 per cent attributed the scarcity of cooking oil to the actions of the cooking oil ‘mafia’.

Indikator’s latest national survey in May showed that Jokowi’s approval rating slipped again to 58.1 per cent, his lowest in the past six years. The main explanation is that the public perceive law enforcement against the ‘cooking oil mafia’ and the ban on palm oil exports as having failed to reduce the domestic price of cooking oil. Some 72.8 per cent of respondents felt that the price of cooking oil was ‘unaffordable’.

It is possible that if Jokowi’s approval ratings do not improve, the solidity of his coalition might start showing some cracks. Coalition parties may keep their distance from the president in the run-up to 2024 because they do not want to be considered as part of an unpopular government. President Jokowi must ensure that Indonesia’s palm oil export ban and related policies actually reduce the price of cooking oil so that ordinary Indonesians’ confidence in his administration can be restored. If this burning issue is not resolved by the time hustings for the next elections are underway, Jokowi’s legacy would be toast.

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Burhanuddin Muhtadi is Visiting Fellow in the Indonesia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Insitute.


Julia Lau is Senior Fellow and Co-Coordinator of the Indonesia Studies Programme, and Editor, Fulcrum at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.