Indonesia’s Presidential Favorite Lacks Only One Thing—A Policy Platform

By Kanupriya Kapoor 8 April 2014

JAKARTA — In a sign Indonesians are coming to assume that the hugely popular Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo will be their next president, even the outgoing leader is pressing him to be more explicit about his policies before he is in office.

It illustrates how, despite running the sprawling and messy Indonesian capital for 1-1/2 years, no one is sure what the presidency under a man widely known as Jokowi will look like.

Voters in the world’s third largest democracy go to the polls on Wednesday to choose a new parliament. Those results will then determine who can run in the July 9 presidential election.

In interviews over the past month with officials and politicians who have worked with Jokowi, several of them closely, what emerges is a leader of considerable political skill who has distinguished himself as someone with a clean reputation in a country of often breathtaking corruption.

The former furniture business owner has also shown a common touch, often visiting Jakarta’s streets to see its vast challenges close up.

But his policies for running Southeast Asia’s biggest economy are largely a blank sheet.

“Jokowi should present his thoughts, solutions or policies that he will implement to solve the complex problems that the country is now facing,” President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said in an interview posted on YouTube on Sunday. Yudhoyono has himself faced growing criticism for indecisive leadership as he enters the final year of his 10 years in office.

Jokowi, at 52, is seen as part of a new generation of leaders who offer a break from the old guard that has dominated Indonesian politics even as it shifted to democracy 16 years ago with the downfall of former dictator Suharto.

The country has been bedeviled by rampant corruption and failure to lift economic growth to its potential.

Jokowi, whose nickname is a contraction of his two names, is the presidential candidate of the opposition Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P), which surveys suggest will dominate Wednesday’s parliamentary election.

He has declined to give media interviews since being nominated for the presidency last month nor addressed policy issues directly.

PDI-P officials, in interviews with Reuters, say their party platform is “strongly nationalist” but offer few details about what that means for policy in the world’s most populous Muslim country, where the welcome for foreign investment may already be cooling.

Both Jokowi and PDI-P say they have deferred policy-related questions until after this week’s parliamentary election.

Party officials say that party chief and former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who single-handedly decided Jokowi’s candidacy, will play a significant advisory role.

“Our agenda is also the agenda of Jokowi if he becomes president,” said Budiman Sudjatmiko, a senior party MP. “[Megawati] will not be driving him but … she will be like a guiding hand.”

Megawati, daughter of the country’s founding father Sukarno, took over as president after her predecessor was ousted by parliament in 2001. Her short term was characterized by indecisiveness, a rise in corruption and a failure to crack down on militancy after the Bali bombings of 2002 that killed more than 200 people and were blamed on Islamic extremists.

Investors looking at Jokowi’s track record in Jakarta will find a mix of policy hints.

Late last year, he criticized a planned multi-billion dollar initiative to introduce cheap, more fuel efficient cars for Jakarta’s growing middle class, saying the capital’s roads were congested enough. He also blocked permits for more shopping malls, also saying there were too many. But in a move applauded by business leaders, he limited wage hikes to far below the level demanded by labor unions.

“Jokowi’s a blank page right now: inexperienced at national politics and with populist tendencies,” said one executive at a foreign business lobby group who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.

But attempted smear campaigns have failed to dent his carefully crafted image. Jokowi has a team of public relations advisors, including one specifically for dealing with foreign media.

One recent attempt to damage him was over suggestions that corruption was involved in the import from China of faulty public buses. Jokowi came out of it untarnished, sacking the official managing the imports and supporting a graft probe.

His lead over rivals such as former general Prabowo Subianto and tycoon Aburizal Bakrie widened after his candidacy was announced.

“We work almost 24 hours a day. Jokowi goes around the city until midnight,” Deputy Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahja Purnama, who belongs to Prabowo’s party, Gerindra, told Reuters. “Our attitude is, ‘let the headache be ours, not yours.’”

When Islamic hardliners in a Jakarta district protested the appointment to public office of a Christian woman, Jokowi backed Susan Zulkifli to continue in her position.

Where middlemen and petty bribes tend to hijack government services, Zulkifli now runs a model district office where her staff work in an open space, prices for services are prominently displayed for the public, and middlemen are nowhere to be seen.

To ease chronic traffic jams, the city last year broke ground on a mass rapid transit (MRT) project that was first proposed more than 20 years ago. Authorities also cleared the gridlock in a notoriously congested area, Tanah Abang, by facing down criminal gangs that ran the place and forcing vendors off the streets and into government-provided kiosks.

But the road to the presidential palace won’t be smooth.

Jokowi’s meteoric rise from mayor of a small central Javanese city called Solo to governor of Jakarta, home to 10 million people, has left many questioning his credentials to run the Indonesian archipelago of 240 million.

His almost seven-year leadership of Solo, marked by his populist approach and willingness to stand up to powerful regional officials, won him national attention.

In 2012 he came third in a global competition for the world’s best mayor, cited for transforming a crime-ridden city into a regional center for art and culture.

Rival party Gerindra, which has put out a detailed policy platform addressing agriculture and infrastructure problems, is quick to point out Jokowi’s weakness.

“What is Jokowi going to do for Indonesia, do we know?” said one senior Gerindra official who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the subject.

Only parties that secure at least 25 percent of the national vote or 20 percent of seats in parliament can field candidates for the presidential election three months later.

When asked by reporters recently about the mounting pressure and smear campaigns, Jokowi, typically soft-spoken, replied: “I’m not bothered.”

Additional reporting by Jonathan Thatcher and Anastasia Arvirianty.