Indonesia’s Governor Prime Time

Indonesia's leading national newspaper, Kompas, released a poll Wednesday showing Jakarta Governor Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's popularity surging in the New Year to a new high of 43.5 percent among all potential presidential candidates. His closest challenger in the respected poll is retired Gen Prabowo Subianto, whose popularity continues to fall and is down to about 11 percent.

While not yet officially a candidate, Jokowi, as he is universally known, is far and away the most potent face on the Indonesian political scene six months ahead of presidential elections. Asia Sentinel co-founder A. Lin Neumann recently profiled Jokowi for Edge Review, a Malaysia-based digital publication. We reprint the profile here.

Joko Widodo, the governor of Indonesia’s sprawling and chaotic capital city, is at the center of a rare political moment. His personality, style and approach to politics have captured the public imagination, making him a front runner to be Indonesia’s next president in 2014 before he has ever even discussed the subject.

In Indonesia, where politicians are imperious and generally remote from those they govern, Jokowi, as he is most commonly referred to, is hands on and approachable. People are loving this about him and, as a result, he is leading most opinion polls by about 20 points over his nearest rival.

“Democracy is about how to improve the life of the people,” he told The Edge Review in an exclusive interview. “So I go to the people. I ask the people what they want, what they need. I discuss with them, dialogue with them. Then I go to my staff. I create the policy and give a solution. I respond to the problem. I think that is political management.”

Jokowi rose from being a furniture manufacturer to become the mayor of his home town, the small East Java city of Solo, in 2005. From there, he was spotted for his clean reputation and unique image and brought to the attention of former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, the chair of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) , Jokowi’ s party, who endorsed him to run for governor.

He was also supported by Prabowo Subianto, the ex-general who is running for president and has ironically been eclipsed in the polls by Jokowi, but few gave him much of a chance.

When he defied the odds in September 2012 and handily beat an imperious and remote incumbent who had the support of both President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Golkar, the country’s largest political party, Jokowi redrew the political map.

Since taking office, his constant – and well publicized – visits to neighborhoods, public markets and slums to meet people, shake hands and solicit advice have earned him a reputation as a leader who gets out of his car and also gets things done.

Some of his projects seem modest enough, but his predecessors did not tackle them. He said he would oust illegal vendors clogging the roads around the huge Tanah Abang public market, creating a traffic nightmare. Within weeks, they were gone, relocated to an area inside the market and traffic was moving. It didn’t take much, but it took doing it.

That quality of getting things done quickly, as much as anything, is Jokowi’s signature. It may not sound revolutionary, but in a country where endless committee meetings, shiny master plans that go nowhere and the sticky fingers of corruption create inaction and delay, Jokowi stands out.

As the interview was about to get underway – in his car as he headed to another meeting – Jokowi gave a demonstration of his approach. He paused to face the reporters hanging around outside his office and began chiding some officials he found lax in their duties earlier in the day. It’s a good performance, he is smiling but he is clearly angry – not fuming, red-faced, scream-at-the-camera angry, but angry enough to get the point across. Jokowi is on it, seemed to be the point. Jokowi is in charge.

“I came there [to a district office] at 8.15 and the office had not yet started to give service to the people,” he explains after getting into the car. “Eight until 4, they’re supposed to be there working.”

This is a Jokowi thing – making sure civil servants go to work on time – and it is popular with his constituents. By most accounts, he and his Indonesian-Chinese deputy, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok, have gotten city offices to open their doors in the morning and provide a level of service that was once rare in Jakarta.

Slender, with a craggy face and a frequent smile, Jokowi is hesitant in English, but well prepared. This is not some country bumpkin politician, but a savvy operator who knows the points he wants to make. “From morning until now I was checking on the dam, checking on the subdistrict office,” he explained as he settled into his seat. He had also come from a meeting with the president. He didn’t discuss that, just as he refuses to discuss national politics or his possible future.

“Every day I go to the ground, I ask the people what they need. I ask the people what they want,” he says. “I go to the market, I go to the riverbanks. I want to know what is the real problem and after that we have a meeting and create the policy and give a solution. We give quick responses and give solutions.”

But a city of more than 9 million people [the entire urban area has roughly 26 million] needs more than photo ops and kicking civil servants into gear to function. What about the really big problems?

“Flooding, traffic congestion, the gap between poor and rich and the quality of life for the people here,” Jokowi says, ticking off a familiar list. The key, he says, is management and follow through.

“For example, flooding. We need a process,” he says. “For traffic congestion, we need a process. We need time to solve the problems, because it is not easy.”

He quickly notes that Metro Jakarta, as an urban area of several jurisdictions, has problems that defy local solutions, but that the central government has no regional authority to transcend local boundaries.

“Like flooding,” he says of the perennial issue of rainstorms rendering the city impassable on a regular basis, “this is not only Jakarta. Here we are now normalizing four big rivers – already making the rivers wider, making the rivers deeper. But the problem is that the water comes from upstream, the run off. It is not easy to manage the water from upstream, because that is not my responsibility. My responsibility is only in Jakarta. So we must work together with other provinces and cities around Jakarta.”

Similarly, with Jakarta’s nightmare traffic, he has already crossed swords with the central government over a “low cost green cars” program that Jokowi fears will put tens of thousands of new vehicles on the road. “People who usually ride motorcycles will switch to cars,” he said at the time.

To handle Jakarta’s traffic and flooding, he says, the key is to have a “national coordinator” with the power to get local jurisdictions in line, but it hasn’t happened yet. For more than a year he has been seeking a “Jabodetabek Transportation Authority,” he says, using the official acronym for the metropolitan area that includes the cities of Jakarta, Bogor, Depok, Tangerang and Bekasi. “Until now, it is not yet finished. So how to manage? Around 2 million cars a day come from outside Jakarta, so we need an institution to coordinate, to solve traffic congestion.”

Some of Jokowi’s accomplishments may seem cosmetic –installing useable sidewalks on major streets – but he has also tackled big items. His administration has broken ground, for example, on a Mass Rail Transit system funded by the Japanese government that has been under discussion for 25 years. He won’t say why it took so long to get it off the ground, but he explains how he made it happen.

“Many, many documents must be prepared and sent,” to start something like the MRT. “Over five months, I checked the documents and then I went to the [cabinet] ministers. One, two, three, four … We must go to five ministers [to have them sign off]. I did this myself. I don’t ask my staff to go, no, I go to the ministers personally. So we could start in October.”

Before entering politics in 2005, Jokowi was a successful furniture manufacturer and exporter. He traveled the world selling his products at trade shows and he emphasizes his business roots, saying that keeping your word, being honest and meeting deadlines is as important in politics as it is in business.

He has taken on corruption by overhauling tax collections in Jakarta, slowly eliminating notorious tax brokers who routinely syphon off revenues by “negotiating” with business owners. Now the entire process for many businesses is online and owners can log in to see their tax account. No more brokers.

“It is all about having a good system. We built the system,” he explains. By putting hotel, restaurant, entertainment and other taxes online in the past year, revenues have skyrocketed and the city budget has been increased from U$4.1 billion in 2013 to US$6.8 billion for 2014. “You can see your taxes in real time. You can check,” he says proudly.

City job recruitment is now online and includes standardized testing for applicants to replace patronage and nepotism. Money is being spent on low income housing to clear squatter areas that are then slated to become parks. There is a moratorium on new shopping mall developments until traffic improves and a city regulation has been passed that will force developers to set aside about 60 per cent of the land area of new developments for some kind of open space.

“I don’t know where he gets all his ideas, but he is talking to everybody, always thinking up new things,” said an aide. Behind the scenes, of course, Jokowi is being courted by powerful business groups, every political leader in the country and foreign visitors. He is open to talking to most anybody, aides say. He wants information, he wants ideas.

If he is going to be president – as certainly seems possible, assuming Megawati names him to be the PDI-P candidate – he will need to translate the hands-on approach that worked in Solo and seems to be making headway in Jakarta onto a much bigger stage. It is far too soon to know if Jokowi is ready for that kind of prime time, but if he stays focused, keeps listening and flashes that high-beam smile often enough, he just may get the chance to find out.

(A. Lin Neumann is a co-founder of Asia Sentinel. This piece originally appeared in the Edge Review.)