Indonesia's Widodo tells AP he'll push economy, labor reform

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Indonesian President Joko Widodo said in an interview Friday that he will push ahead with sweeping and potentially unpopular economic reforms, including a more business-friendly labor law, in his final term because he is no longer constrained by politics.

Widodo also told The Associated Press that it is "entirely possible" that he could ban the hard-line Islamic Defenders Front during his second five-year term.

The group wants Shariah law to apply to Indonesia's 230 million Muslims. It was a key player in organizing massive street protests in 2016 and 2017 against the governor of Jakarta, a Widodo ally, who was subsequently imprisoned for blasphemy.

In recent years, Indonesia — the world's most populous Muslim-majority country — has faced a rise in Muslim militancy, a trend that could spook foreign investors courted by Widodo as key drivers of economic growth.

In a wide-ranging interview, Widodo outlined his priorities for his second term, including continuing large-scale infrastructure projects and simplifying a cumbersome bureaucracy. He said labor laws will be overhauled in what will be a politically challenging decision to attract more investment and create more jobs.

"In the next five years I have no political burden so in making a decision, especially important decisions for the country, in my opinion it will be easier," he said during a tour of Jakarta, including a stop at a mosque in a working-class neighborhood where he performed Friday prayers.

"Things that were impossible before, I will make a lot of decisions on that in the next five years," said Widodo, 58, who was reelected with a modestly increased majority in the April vote. Indonesia has nearly 270 million people and nearly 90% are Muslims.

Widodo presents himself as a man of the people, often emphasizing his humble roots in a riverside slum in the central Java city of Solo. His popular appeal, including his pioneering use of social media, helped him win elections for mayor of Solo, governor of Jakarta and twice for president over the past 14 years.

Now, as he enters his second term, he has close to 23 million followers in Instagram and 11 million on Twitter, numbers he is well aware of.

On Friday, Widodo's political acumen was on display during a visit to Tanah Tinggi, a working-class neighborhood of Jakarta and one of his strongholds. He performed Muslim prayers at a local mosque, sitting cross-legged on the carpet alongside other worshippers.

Neighborhood residents crowded outside the mosque, hoping for a chance to take a selfie with the president. The stench from open sewage running through roadside ditches wafted through the air.

Widodo's frequent public outings, in which he is typically thronged by enthusiastic crowds, appear spontaneous, but contain carefully crafted political messages. In Tanah Tinggi, he wore a simple white shirt and locally made $30 sneakers, in line with his humble image and in sharp contrast to the entitlement and corruption usually associated with Indonesian politicians.

The public prayer also helped shore up his image as a devout man. During the hotly contested general election, his opponent, an ex-general supported by Muslim groups who favor Shariah law, had criticized Widodo for supposedly not being observant enough.

Widodo said he would try to work with Islamist groups as long as their views don't violate Indonesia's founding principles that include a secular government and tolerance of several officially recognized religions. "If an organization endangers the nation in its ideology I won't compromise," he said.

Asked about possibly banning the Islamic Defenders Front, he said: "Yes, of course, it's entirely possible if the government review from a security and ideological standpoint shows that they are not in line with the nation."

The front was once on the political fringes in Indonesia, but has gained significant influence through humanitarian and charity work.

Widodo in 2017 banned Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, a group that campaigned for a global caliphate.

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