A Conversation With Indonesian Presidential Front-Runner Jokowi

By Saw Yan Naing 29 April 2014

JAKARTA — For Indonesia’s presidential front-runner, a campaign to alleviate poverty in the Indonesian capital is largely personal, stemming in part from his own experiences as a child.

Joko Widodo, better known by his nickname Jokowi, is the governor of Jakarta and a likely contender for the Indonesian presidency, but he traces his roots back to the small Central Java city of Solo, where he grew up as the son of a furniture maker and lived with his family in a rented shack. He later earned an engineering degree and entered the family furniture business, before shifting to politics and making a name for himself as mayor of Solo from 2005 to 2012.

“When I was a small boy, I was not part of the elite, not from a rich family,” Jokowi said last month during a roundtable discussion with reporters in Jakarta. “Around my house there was garbage, and there was no water, there was no well. This is my story.”

As mayor in Solo he focused on making health care and education more accessible to low-income families, while also building low-cost apartments.

“Now I’m here, as if by accident,” he said with a laugh, referring to his climb in 2012 to become the governor of Jakarta, where he is employing many of the same strategies to help low-income families in the chaotic metropolis of some 10 million people.

But many political observers say his success was far from accidental and can be credited in part to his hands-on approach.

“Many people have said that I’m different because the other governors, they like to stay at the office. For me, I stay at the office only a maximum of one hour [per day],” Jokowi said. “Mostly, I go to see people on the ground, in the markets, and I ask people what they want and what they need. The people, they want to see leaders working.”

As a result, Jokowi has won the hearts of many voters in Jakarta and far beyond in this archipelagic nation. His popularity led his party to announce in mid-March that he would be its candidate for the presidency.

Inspiring hope for change in a country that has long been plagued by corrupt officials, he has been compared with the 2008 version of US President Barack Obama, who championed the slogan of “change we can believe in.” Jokowi’s victory for the Jakarta governorship in 2012 was widely seen as reflecting popular voter support for “new” or “clean” leaders rather than the “old” style of politics in Indonesia.

During legislative elections this month, posters with his portrait could be seen in public areas of downtown Jakarta, while buskers with guitars sang songs calling him their “life and hope.”

As part of his poverty alleviation efforts in the capital, Jokowi has focused on making health care more affordable. To do this, he has delivered “Jakarta health cards” to 3.5 million people in the city. With the cards, he said, “they can go to public clinics, they can go to the hospitals, totally free of charge. I worked out this program because people asked me for this when I met them.”

Access to education is another major concern. Nining, a 40-year-old bookseller in Jakarta, said she could not afford to attend university when she was younger. “Education costs are very expensive in Indonesia. I think the government hasn’t done enough for the people,” she told The Irrawaddy.

Jokowi said his administration was working on that.

“We also have what we call ‘Jakarta smart cards.’ This is for education,” he said. “When I would go to see the people and I asked about education, they asked the government to cover the cost of school uniforms, school vans, boots [and] shoes for the poor,” he said.

He added that Jakarta’s annual budget had increased from 41 trillion rupiah (US $3.5 billion) last year to 72 trillion rupiah this year.

The Indonesian presidency will be decided in July by direct election. Candidates will be nominated by parties that hold at least 20 percent of seats in the legislature, or parties which have formed a coalition representing that percentage of seats, or those that took 25 percent of seats in the previous election.

Jokowi’s party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), only won 19 percent of seats in the legislative elections on April 9. Since then it has started forming coalitions with other parties, including the National Democrat Party (Nasdem) and most recently the National Awakening Party (PKB).

Despite earning popular support on the coattails of Jokowi, the PDI-P is not immune to the negative voter sentiment that has affected many of the established political parties in a country where corruption stories are a regular feature of newspapers’ front-pages.

But Jokowi hopes he can continue earning voters’ trust.

“When I see people protest, I invite them to my office. We discuss, and sometimes I go directly to the demonstration places,” Jokowi said. “I have opened city hall, and now people like to come here because they can meet with me and tell me their complaints.”

“People want to see their leaders working,” he said. “If we build a good system for them, people will trust the government.”

Saw Yan Naing is a fellow of the East-West Center’s 2014 Jefferson Fellowship and this story is published under the fellowship program. He met with Jokowi during the fellowship program in Jakarta in March.