The Meaning of Jokowi for Indonesian Politics

There was a feeling of relief among many Indonesians when the waiting was finally over on March 14 and the most popular politician in Indonesia, Jakarta Gov. Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, got the OK from former President Megawati Sukarnoputri to run for president in July under her party banner. The news was greeted with cheers, a big bump in the stock market, congratulatory text messages and a flood of Twitter traffic. Just by running, Jokowi’s candidacy was celebrated by many people as a victory.

Coming from out of nowhere, the former furniture manufacturer and small-city mayor has turned Indonesian politics upside down. The usual power brokers have been supplanted by an insurgent who has used the force of his personality, a reputation for integrity and demonstrated competence in his brief time as Jakarta governor to create an air of inevitably around his bid for the presidency.

He did so while appearing humble and without ever publicly stating a desire to run for higher office. In the process, he trumped his nearest rivals by 20 percentage points or more in most opinion polls. He outflanked not only opponents from other political parties – many of them longstanding fixtures on Indonesia’s political scene – but he even painted Megawati, the chairman of his political party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), into a corner that left her with little option but to relinquish her dreams of a fourth run for the presidency.

The change in PDI-P is of no small moment. The party has its roots in the political machine of Indonesia’s founding president, Sukarno, and his daughter, Megawati, has kept control in the family for decades, but has lost three successive presidential elections. She had hoped that a family member would lead the party in 2014, but neither she nor her children have the star power to compete with Jokowi.

The first round in the process will be legislative elections on April 9. To put a candidate on the ballot for the July 7 presidential voting, a party or a coalition of parties must win 20 per cent of the seats or 25 per cent of the popular vote in the April balloting.

Few parties are likely to pass that threshold, and as a result, they will be forced to form coalitions to get a slot on the July ballot. Most analysts feel that PDI-P, with Jokowi leading, could rack up 30-35 per cent of the seats in the national House of Representatives, giving the party a commanding position.

With the election cycle just beginning, Jokowi is a potentially transformative figure. To start with, he has been thrust into the lead only because of popular support. He enjoyed no inside track and few established politicians wanted him around because he is a wild card who could possibly upset many cozy – and corrupt – relationships.

Some hopefuls, like the Golkar Party’s tycoon-leader Aburizal Bakrie and former strongman Gen. Prabowo Subianto, have been running expensive campaigns virtually non-stop since the last elections in 2009. Jokowi has not spent any money campaigning for this chance, because he hasn’t needed to.

By appearing not to desire the office, he allows the force of his personality – and a clever coterie of political operatives acting behind the scenes – to let the news media, Facebook and Twitter do the work for free. The result has been a true groundswell of emotional support, because his actions in office have been enough to keep the momentum building.

It is easy to be cynical about Indonesian politics, especially given the dismal track record of a corrupt and inefficient system. Legislation is bought and paid for, rent-seeking is rampant and motives are almost always suspect. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ran as a corruption-busting reformer in 2004 and 2009, but his two terms are ending with major figures from his Democratic Party in prison or headed there soon for corruption; public disillusionment is rising despite the country’s solid economic performance.

“We can be so much better,” said a businessman friend of mine who has known Jokowi since his days in the furniture business and as mayor of Solo in East Java starting in 2005. “Jokowi really does care.”

For now, people are joking about the July election being a coronation, and some political figures from Golkar and the Democrats are quietly abandoning their parties to support Jokowi. Prabowo, the former front-runner, now complains that Megawati once promised to support him in 2014, and in the process he looks churlish and petty. Through it all, Jokowi seems virtually unassailable. He is one of those rare political figures whose followers really believe that he makes the nation a better place.

Leading Indonesia is obviously a massive job and Jokowi is inexperienced on such a stage. But his performance as Jakarta governor since September 2012 has been impressive. He is fixing nagging problems that generations of his predecessors ignored. The city has more parks and sidewalks and fewer illegal vendors; city offices now open on time where once they worked half days, if at all; this season’s annual flooding has been less severe because of active dredging and slum relocation programs; tax collections are sharply higher; and work has begun on a mass transit rail system that has been only talked about for 25 years.

These things have happened on Jokowi’s watch, because he and his team emphasize governance over thievery. His deputy governor, Basuki Tjahaj Purnama, is outspoken and apparently fearless. The two of them make a strong team. A Chinese Christian, Basuki is now poised to succeed to the governor’s chair in the capital of the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, which is itself revolutionary.

Many things could go wrong. Skeletons could be found in Jokowi’s closet or he could be saddled with a poor running mate. PDI-P itself has a sordid reputation for corruption, and Jokowi will have as many battles internally as externally. But he will go into July with extraordinary momentum. A great many Indonesians, rich and poor, want something better out of their ragged political system and they have decided Jokowi is the guy.

On the evening of his anointment, I spoke at length with a well-known politician closely aligned with Yudhoyono. Far from being disappointed in Jokowi’s ascension, the man was ebullient.

“This is the best thing for Indonesia. He can change the way we do things,” the man said, noting he and others from many political camps have been eagerly seeking out the governor to help.

“I think he will make a difference.”

A. Lin Neumann is a co-founder of Asia Sentinel and was the founding editor of the Jakarta Globe. This article originally appeared in Edge Review.