Eyebrows were raised when President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo omitted former fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti from his new cabinet in October 2019. Projecting a tough stance on illegal fishing, Susi was a political superstar during Jokowi’s first term.
Despite Susi’s public approval, however, the president chose former congressman Edhy Prabowo to succeed her. As someone close to Prabowo Subianto – Jokowi’s opponent in the last two elections – Edhy’s appointment was seen as a political move to appease the president’s former rival.
But my latest research explores another reason why this happened. The study analysed secondary sources from 2018 to 2019 and conducted 30 interviews with members of the fisheries ministry, fisher groups, business owners, NGOs, politicians and Susi herself.
Although her policies decreased illegal fishing by 90% , Susi’s harsh managerial style alienated many parties. They later coalesced into a loosely associated coalition to counter her policies and oust her from office.
The above findings seem to confirm the ongoing power of an oligarchic system that still heavily shapes Indonesia’s political economy. Those attempting to dismantle it – such as Susi – have ended up being attacked and isolated.
Rise of the anti-Susi coalition
The coalition against Susi included fisheries companies both in Indonesia and abroad, lawmakers, senior politicians, academics, civil groups and fisheries associations. They had different reasons for opposing Susi, and not all were linked to the fisheries ‘mafia’. But they found common ground when Susi moved to ban foreign-built vessels in 2016.
An 11-month evaluation by Susi’s Illegal Fishing Task Force found most of the 1,132 foreign vessels monitored had only nominal Indonesian owners. Thus, they were operating illegally within Indonesia waters. Susi, however, penalised companies and revoked their operating licenses in a one-size-fits-all approach. This angered not only those who operated illegally in Indonesia, but also those who were guilty of minor administrative or tax violations.
Based on interviews I conducted in Jakarta , the strategies the coalition used to counter Susi shifted over time. At the beginning of Susi’s term, they tried to negotiate with her. After this failed, they focused on pressuring the president to replace Susi. When Jokowi made it clear this was politically unacceptable, the coalition focused on ensuring she would not be reappointed.
Different members of the coalition opted for different strategies, including ‘ bribery ‘ and a ‘ smear campaign ‘, both unsuccessful. The coalition then focused on lobbying senior politicians and members of parliament, organising and financing popular demonstrations against Susi, and countering Susi’s messages via the press or social media.
The combined weight of the latter three strategies achieved some immediate results and possibly contributed to Susi not being reappointed to her post. The clearest result was convincing Jokowi to halt indefinitely the prohibition of cantrang – a type of trawl fishing. It was originally banned through Ministerial Regulation No. 2/2015 along with other types of trawls and seine nets deemed to be destructive fishing practices.
Fishers nationwide were given until 2018 to switch to alternative methods of fishing that, although more environmentally friendly, resulted in reduced by-catch. Many fishers in Java resisted and, financed by members of the coalition, they took their opposition to the street.
Jokowi eventually met a delegation of these Javanese fishers in early 2018. He immediately instructed Susi to extend the transition period in Java indefinitely. This represented a clear setback and was politically damaging for Susi. She had repeatedly said the ban was final .
Susi’s ‘no compromise’ attitude was partly responsible for her isolation
Susi’s omission from Jokowi’s final cabinet was also fuelled by her inability, or unwillingness, to build a counter coalition to support her vision and actions. She paired her policies with a strong-woman managerial style, wrapped in a sense of self-righteousness that eventually left her completely isolated. That had much to do with the public persona she nurtured even before she became a minister, of a no-nonsense outsider uninterested in power.
Susi attempted to establish a direct line with ‘the people’ by taking advantage of what others saw as weaknesses : a woman in a man’s world; a high school drop-out in a position of power; a successful self-made businessperson; a tattooed chainsmoker and straight-talking grandmother. This ‘persona’ was much loved by the general public but contributed to her isolation within and beyond her ministry.
Within the fisheries ministry, Susi centred decision-making on herself and a restricted number of individuals. Dissent was not tolerated and punished with dismissal or reshuffles. In the long run, this worsened an already fragmented ministry, with officials regularly doubting Susi’s priorities and approach , and eventually gave many parties the motivation to move against Susi.
Her approach burned bridges with many actors historically involved in the fisheries industry. They included a number of fisheries associations and also marine scientists from IPB University in Bogor, West Java. Susi purged the ministry of IPB alumni – a regular contributor of ministerial staff – which she considered to be too close to the former minister, Rohmin Dahuri. Rohmin himself is an IPB alumnus and remains an influential critic of her policies.
Susi grouped these traditionally important actors as members of the fisheries ‘mafia’ — which my research could not confirm — and ended up alienating them. Groups such as the Indonesian Traditional Fishermen Union (KNTI) were at first very supportive of her approach as they were given channels to influence policies through various commissions such as the Tuna Commission and the Shrimp Commission.
By the mid-point of her term, however, they expressed frustration with Susi’s ‘excessive’ focus on illegal fishing at the expense of fishers’ welfare. Susi’s political isolation became apparent after a public spat in early 2018 with then Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan and Vice President Jusuf Kalla. They called on her to stop blowing up vessels and focus on developing the fisheries industry.