A new man readies for office in Indonesia – The Irrawaddy

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published in the October 2014 print magazine edition of The Irrawaddy

Joko Widodo signs guitar at event organised by supporters in south Jakarta in July (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Joko Widodo signs guitar at event organised by supporters in south Jakarta in July (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

JAKARTA – When Joko Widodo starts settling into the Merdeka Palace after his inauguration on October 20, he’ll have a lot to contend with.

After all, Jokowi, as he’s widely-known, will by then be President of the world’s 4th biggest country, a 3.000 mile long archipelago that by some counts is the world’s 10th biggest economy.

If the low-key new President has a minute, however, he’ll surely muse upon how far he has come in the last ten years. He’s been told it often enough on his surprise visits to neighborhoods and markets in Solo and Jakarta, flesh-pressing known as blusukan in Indonesian.

A man of the people, of the people, born in a slum, and now President. Ten years ago, then 43, Joko was selling furniture in Solo – his Java hometown an hour or so flight east of Jakarta.

He was elected Mayor of Solo in 2005, making a name for himself with initiatives such as cleaning up street markets and branding Solo as an old-style Javanese tourist attraction, moving it out of the shadow of nearby Jogjakarta.

Widodo is the first President without connections to Indonesia’s New Order era or its long-standing political elites. Or at least connections that don’t go back very far – say much past 2012 when some of Indonesia’s political grandees – including future rival Prabowo Subianto – saw him as a backable candidate to run for the Governorship of Jakarta, a traffic-clogged megalopolis that ranks in some lists as the world’s 3rd biggest city.

And while Widodo didn’t spend very long in office in Jakarta – a job described by some as the 3rd most powerful in Indonesia, he did enough to convince former President Megawati Sukarnoputri – daughter of Sukarno, the country’s first President – to set aside her ambitions to run again and throw her Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) behind Widodo.

Jeffrey Neilson, an Indonesia watcher at The University of Sydney, said that Widodo has shown “a commitment to, and ability to deliver, cleaner government and improved efficiency in terms of service delivery.”

“His success in negotiating a highly favourable contract for Jakarta’s much-needed MRT project also suggests that he could make some inroads into Indonesia’s serious infrastructure bottlenecks,” Prof. Neilson wrote in an email.

Widodo’s ascent is the latest adornment to an Indonesian democracy that is now routinely described as the fairest in southeast Asia – much less violent and somewhat less oligarchic than The Philippines, the sole serious rival.

Like an Indonesian Pope Francis – whose impromptu meanderings into the masses after Masses in St Peter’s Square have a bit of blusukan about them – Joko is already showing that he might spurn some of the gilded trimmings of office – saying that his ministers can use the current fleet of official cars, rather than splurge on a new garage-full of alloyed Mercs or Beemers.

It is the kind of attitude that, if not overdone, appeals in acountry where cynicism about politicians is widespread. Speaking in Solo three days before Indonesia’s April parliamentary elections, town tourism official Patrick Orlando spoke in glowing terms of his former boss and local-lad-made-good.

“Everything developed and grew so quickly,” he recalled, dicussing Joko’s impact as Mayor. So popular did the boy born in a riverside slum become, that he was re-elected in 2010 in a 90 per cent landslide.

“The people really respect him,” Orlando said, an assessment meant as understatement.

Hernawan Tri Wahyudi, a teacher in Solo, said that he was disappointed by Widodo’s precocious ascent. Widodo has since resigned as Governor of Jakarta to take up the Presidency, but had he stuck out his second term of as Mayor of Solo, he would still be there until next year.

“His job not finished here when he left,” grumbled Wahyudi, who relented on his chagrin enough to concede that Widodo would make a good president.

But while Widodo’s popularity made him odds-on favourite to win the Presidency when his candidacy was pitched in early 2014 – “the Jokowi effect” only went so far, it seems.

The PDIP reckoned it could win 30 per cent or more of the parliamentary vote by tailgaiting their new poster-boy. In the end, it got less than 20 per cent, while Widodo’s chaotic Presidential campaigning almost succumbed to rival Prabowo Subianto’s bombast and smearing – with a double digit poll lead cut to next to nothing by the eve of the vote.

Widodo won in the end by 8.4 million votes, 6 per cent, though Subianto, his chest puffed out to the end, took some telling before he conceded – needing a Constitutional Court ruling that the election did not feature the sort of massive fraud that the loser had alleged, to sometimes comic effect.

At time of writing, Indonesia’s parliament was mulling a last-ditch move to abolish direct elections for mayors and local heads of government. This would make it much less likely that another Jokowi could emerge. The lawmakers behind the proposal supported the losing Subianto-Hatta ticket in the July Presidential election, and the word is that the defeated former army man was behind the maneouvre – piqued, even burned, after seeing his protege win highest office, something Subianto had been chasing for a decade.

As things stand Subianto’s supporters make up more than 60 per cent of MPs for the nxt parliament – those lawmakers elected last April who will succeed those currently in situ, seemingly fixated on belying their lame-duck status by pushing through the local election regression.

Such a parliament could make life very hard for President Widodo, stymiying his efforts at reforms – such as cutting a fuel subsidy that will absorb around 20 per cent of goverment spending in 2015.

But negotiations on going on behind the scenes to try cajole some of the parties who joined Subianto’s Laskar Merah Putih or Red and White coalition across to the Widodo side. The coalition was announced in July and described, in what would be a truly revolutionary development in Indonesian politics – as “permanent.”

But Widodo’s Veep, Jusuf Kalla, is an old stalwart of Golkar, the party of former dictator Suharto and a part of outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s all-things-to-all-men coalition.

Kalla might try sway Golkar’s 91 MP’s to cross over, while others to court could be the United Development Party (PPP) – now under new leadership after former Religious Affairs Minister and Subianto ally Suryadharma Ali was ousted in September, after being snared by Indonesia’s hyperactive anti-graft commission on charges of manipulating a fund used to send Muslim pilgrims to Mecca.

Hasto Kristiyanto, a member of Widodo’s “transiition team” and a key player in the PDIP, told media after Ali was removed that “we’ll see if Suryadharma’s dismissal will indeed end up with the party joining Jokowi-Kalla.”

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