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Indonesian president to take office facing huge challenges

Joko Widodo, Indonesia's first leader without deep roots in the era of dictator Suharto, will be sworn in as president Monday but faces huge challenges to enact a bold reform agenda - PHOTO: AFP

[Jakarta] Joko Widodo, Indonesia's first leader without deep roots in the era of dictator Suharto, will be sworn in as president Monday but faces huge challenges to enact a bold reform agenda.

The inauguration, which will be followed by colourful festivities expected to end in heavy metal fan Widodo taking to the stage with rock bands, caps a remarkable rise for a softly-spoken politician who was brought up in a riverside slum.

Mr Joko, known by his nickname Jokowi, worked his way up through local politics before securing the presidency in July following a close race against controversial ex-general Prabowo Subianto.

He will be the country's first president from outside an ageing band of political and military figures who have ruled the world's third-biggest democracy since the end of the three-decade Suharto dictatorship in 1998.

The 53-year-old former furniture exporter is a "regular commoner", said Tobias Basuki, from Jakarta think-tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. He won support with his man-of-the-people image, particularly during his time as Jakarta governor.

Foreign dignitaries, including US Secretary of State John Kerry and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, are set to attend the inauguration in parliament in Jakarta.

Afterwards, Mr Joko and his new vice-president, Jusuf Kalla, will travel in a horse-drawn carriage accompanied by a parade to the presidential palace, and in the evening the new leader is expected to join rock bands on stage at an outdoor concert.

About 24,000 police and military personnel will be deployed to secure the day's events, which will see Mr Joko, only Indonesia's second directly elected president, taking over from former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono after a decade in power.

But the euphoria of the inauguration is likely to be short-lived, analysts warn, as Mr Joko faces up to the task of leading the world's fourth most populous country, with 250 million people spread over more than 17,000 islands, at a critical moment.

Growth in Southeast Asia's top economy is at five-year lows, corruption remains rampant, and fears are mounting that support for the Islamic State group could spawn a new generation of radicals in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country.

Mr Joko has set out an ambitious reform agenda to tackle the country's many problems, but there is concern the notoriously fractious parliament could prove a hindrance.

In a boost, Mr Prabowo unexpectedly met Mr Joko on Friday for the first time since the election and pledged support, a dramatic U-turn for the ex-general that offered hope for the incoming leader's reforms.

In recent weeks, Mr Prabowo's supporters in parliament had used their majority to abolish the direct election of local leaders, a move opposed by Mr Joko, and win key posts in the legislature.

But analysts cautioned it was too early to say if the reconciliation would last or in reality help Mr Joko.

"Whether (the meeting) means anything in terms of how the legislature operates, we don't know yet," said Paul Rowland, a Jakarta-based independent political analyst.

Mr Joko's first test will be to reduce the huge fuel subsidies that eat up about a fifth of the budget, a move economists say is urgently needed but which risks sparking large street protests.

He is also expected to announce his new cabinet later in the week. AFP