Who is Joko Widodo?


Given that Indonesia is the world’s fourth-most populous country, the 15th largest world economy (and likely to grow), the second-most populous democracy and the most populous Muslim democracy, its elections this spring and summer are nearly as important as those in the European Union and in India.Indonesia Flag

Democracy came to Indonesia only gradually. After the fall of Indonesia’s president Suharto in 1998, the country held its first democratic parliamentary elections in 1999 and its first direct presidential election in 2004.

In 2004, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono became Indonesia’s first directly elected president. When he steps down later this year, he’ll leave behind a country firmly on a democratic track and with one of the world’s strongest emerging economies. Indonesia’s GDP skyrocketed during his administration from $256.8 billion in 2004 to $878 billion in 2012 — and growing. Between 2004 and 2012, Indonesia had an average GDP growth rate of 5.78%.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for improvement on any mix of economic, social or political measures. Indonesia’s next president will face several challenges. Its infrastructure — roads, train networks and ports — falls far behind that of China or even India. It has a growing urban population that suffers from flooding, pollution, clogged traffic, poor housing conditions and inferior health care and education services. Indonesia’s next president must also design an  economic policy that will bring productive growth to Indonesia without chasing away foreign investment. With the East Timor and Aceh questions settled, Indonesia’s next president won’t face any pressing existential issues of national identity, notwithstanding ongoing pressure from Islamists.

But after a decade of ‘normal’ politics, July’s election will be more conventional than historical.

For over a year, the frontrunner in the presidential race has been the governor of Jakarta state, Joko Widodo (known simply as ‘Jokowi’ to most Indonesians). The new star of Indonesian politics, Jokowi (pictured above) has been compared to US president Barack Obama for his meteoric rise, though he only entered the presidential race last week. He rose to national prominence only after winning the September 2012 Jakarta gubernatorial election, ousting the one-term incumbent, Fauzi Bowo, of Yudhoyono’s governing Partai Demokrat (Democratic Party).

In the past two elections, his party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P, Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan) nominated Megawati Sukarnoputri as its presidential candidate. The daughter of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first post-independence leader who governed Indonesia between 1947 and 1964, Megawati served as president between 2001 and 2004. Megawati’s apparent decision to pass the leadership baton to Jokowi is a sign that, at age 67, Megawati has begrudgingly determined that a presidential comeback isn’t likely.

Jokowi comes from a younger generation that came of age not under Sukarno, but under Suharto, a more authoritarian figure who pulled the country away from socialism and towards economic liberalism, as well as away from the Soviet Union and China and toward the United States.

Jokowi made the leap from business — he once sold furniture — to politics only within the past decade. As mayor of Surakarta (Solo) between 2005 and 2012, and as governor of Jakarta today, Jokowi has become known for a hands-on political style, which involves the tradition of blusukan — impromptu visits throughout his city to check in with everyday Indonesians, a touch that allows Jokowi to connect with Indonesian voters better than other members of the political elite, including Yudhoyono. That approach has made Jokowi incredibly popular, and it has given him the kind of profile that Cory Booker recently enjoyed as mayor of Newark, New Jersey — a responsive super-official ready to deal with emergencies from flooding to traffic at a moment’s notice, though those problems remain endemic to Indonesia’s chaotic capital. As Jakarta’s governor, he’s increased spending on education programs, and he’s raised the minimum wage twice (first by 44% and by 9% in 2013).

Perhaps the most comprehensive policy that Jokowi has implemented in Jakarta is a universal heath care program quickly introduced upon taking office in 2012. Like the health care reforms introduced by Obama, Jokowi was criticized for the program’s rollout and implementation, which included a surge in demand for medical services.

But that doesn’t necessarily explain what he would do as Indonesia’s next president. The latest Morgan poll shows that Jokowi holds a massive lead in the July contest (with 45% support, he is on the verge of winning the absolute majority he would need to avoid a September runoff), and Megawati’s announcement that she will support Jokowi as the PDI-P presidential candidate gave the party a 10-point boost in next Wednesday’s parliamentary elections — it’s now set to become the largest party in the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat, (DPR, the People’s Representative Council) after a decade in opposition. The Jokowi surge is so strong that the PDI-P could even win more support than it did in its 1999 election victory (33.76%), when Megawati’s appeal was at its post-Suharto peak.

Much of Jokowi’s popularity is invariably due to the fact that he can still be all things to all Indonesians, and as the campaign turns toward the July vote, Jokowi will have to provide more details about his national vision. Like Obama in 2008, Jokowi is already facing increasing criticism that he lacks the experience and seasoning to lead one of the world’s largest countries.

It’s tempting to argue that if he’s elected president, Megawati will be the most important figure, guiding Indonesian government from the background — and Jokowi has taken special care to cultivate a strong relationship with Megawati.

But Megawati’s own ideology is somewhat unclear beyond the goal of returning to the Indonesian presidency. In the crucial period between Suharto’s fall and Yudhoyono’s election, Megawati’s popularity had more to do with the fact that she was Sukarno’s daughter than anything else. In policy terms, her presidency was concerned more with Indonesia’s economic recovery after the 1997 currency crisis and its aftermath, and her legacy will be putting Indonesia on the firm path to robust democracy.

Jokowi’s presidential nomination will become official after the April 9 parliamentary elections. The PDI-P must win 20% of the seats in the People’s Representative Council or 25% of the national vote in order to nominate a candidate — or otherwise ally with other parties to reach that hurdle. Even if the PDI-P somehow fails to reach the threshold outright, Jokowi’s star power will certainly bring the PDI-P no shortage of suitors from which to choose a running mate (even if the PDI-P reaches the 20%/25% hurdle outright). 

In 2009, Megawati teamed up with Prabowo Subianto, the leader of the nationalist Partai Gerakan Indonesia Raya (Gerindra, or the Great Indonesia Movement Party). But this time around, Prabowo has emerged as the leading challenger to Jokowi, and Gerindra is rising in the polls, in part due to its populist push for re-nationalizing part of the country’s mining industry (a new law earlier this year forbids exporting mineral ores unless they’ve been first processed in Indonesia). Moreover, human rights activists have targeted Prabowo for his role in the violent crackdown against anti-Suharto, pro-democracy activists in 1998.

A much likelier partner is the more pro-business Partai Golongan Karya (Golkar, Party of the Functional Groups), whose presidential candidate Aburizal Bakrie has even less support than Prabowo. Golkar’s former leader Jusuf Kalla served as Yudhoyono’s first vice president between 2004 and 2009, and Golkar is a member of the Demokrat-led governing coalition. Notably, Golkar was Indonesia’s governing party under Suharto from the 1960s through the 1990s. An alliance in the 2014 election between the PDI-P and Golkar would bring about a fascinating union between the party of Sukarno and the party of Suharto.

In any event, Jokowi’s decision about an electoral alliance will be the first major indication of how he intends to govern the country.

Though the PDI-P might be slightly more leftist than the Demokrats or Golkar, all three parties are based on the principles of pancasila, as set out by Sukarno in 1945 — the five guiding principles including Indonesian nationalism, justice and humanity, representative democracy, social welfare and monotheism and religiosity. That’s incredibly vague, but the pancasila ideal was to bring together an archipelago state that today encompasses nearly 240 million citizens, including Javanese, Sundanese, Malay, and many other ethnic groups and cultures; Muslims, Hindus, Christians and other religions.

Photo credit to Tribun Jakarta/FX Ismanto.

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