New Indonesian President Leads Country Back to Sea

By MarEx 2014-10-20 11:46:00

Indonesia's Joko Widodo took over as president of the world's third-largest democracy on Monday with supporters' hopes high, but pressing economic problems and skeptical rivals set to test the former furniture salesman.

Widodo won a narrow victory over a former general in a July election with promises of clean government and tackling entrenched interests. It was the first time in the young democracy's history that a president was elected from outside the established military and political elite.

In his inaugural speech, Widodo said he considered himself the country's "captain at the helm" and promised to make the nation of 13,500 islands a maritime power.

He has promised to expand the country's ports to help revive economic growth, but will need to find the funds for such an ambitious project.

His first big test looks set to be cutting fuel subsidies in the next two weeks to avoid breaching a legal limit on the budget deficit, which is under pressure from a shortfall in tax revenues and the slowest economic growth in five years.

Higher fuel prices have sparked protests in Indonesia before and contributed to the downfall of long-serving autocrat and then president Suharto in 1998.

While Widodo has remained largely silent on his cabinet, he has said just over half of his ministers would be technocrats. He is expected to announce his team as early as Tuesday.

Within weeks of taking office, Widodo will be in the international limelight with an Asia-Pacific summit in Beijing and a G20 summit in Australia.

U.S. Secretary of State Kerry met Widodo and was expected to have encouraged him to maintain the active role in regional foreign policy pursued by the previous administration, amid concern the new president may be more inward-looking.

"What we see in the region is a pretty steady calling for Indonesia to remain active in foreign affairs," said a U.S. official traveling with Kerry.

Copyright Reuters 2014.