Jokowi: The New Face of Indonesian Politics

By Jonathan Thatcher & Kanupriya Kapoor 23 July 2014

JAKARTA — When Indonesian furniture business owner Joko “Jokowi” Widodo turned to a career in politics nine years ago, he was a complete novice.

But the can-do, clean image he has cultivated as a small-city mayor, and over the past year-and-a-half as Jakarta governor, has propelled him to the presidential palace.

He is set to become Indonesia’s first leader not to have emerged from the political or military elite.

The Elections Commission on Tuesday announced that Jokowi had beaten his rival, ex-general Prabowo Subianto, in the July 9 race by six percentage points—the country’s closest presidential election ever. He will take office in October.

It is Jokowi’s meteoric rise through the ranks of local government, his refusal to be intimidated by entrenched interests and in particular his famous impromptu visits around Jakarta that have endeared him to a broad swathe of Indonesians, in particular the poor and minority groups.

To many Indonesians, Jokowi, 53, represents a clean break from the old elite that have clung to power since the fall in 1998 of former authoritarian ruler Suharto.

“Jokowi’s the first genuinely post-Suharto figure [while] everybody else comes from that era, including Prabowo,” said Paul Rowland, a Jakarta-based political analyst.

“He is a different generation of politician and there’s a market for politicians like him who are lower-key but who get things done,” he added.

Since leading Jakarta, he has succeeded in finally starting a mass transit railway system for the notoriously traffic-clogged city, a concept first proposed over 20 years ago. He hasn’t shied away from shaking up the city’s inert bureaucracy and has faced down resistance to clearing congested areas.

And he has promised to continue to shake things up as president. He told Reuters in an interview last week that he would beef up the country’s threadbare infrastructure, unravel near impenetrable regulations and sack ministers if they aren’t up to the job.

“If [ministers don’t succeed] there are more than a thousand other good people in Indonesia to replace them. I can cut and then replace them. It’s very simple for me,” he said.

“They have to be clean, they have to be competent, they have to have good leadership [skills] and a commitment to serve the people.”

Jokowi’s celebrity-style popularity left the powerful head of his party and ex-president Megawati Sukarnoputri with no choice but to set aside her own ambitions in March and nominate him for president.

Jokowi and his backing party, the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P), ran an often disorganized election campaign that was left vulnerable to relentless smear campaigns from rivals who questioned his religion and ethnicity and significantly eroded his lead in the race.

Jokowi is a Muslim of native Indonesian descent, a fact he went to great lengths to prove by undertaking a whirlwind pilgrimage to Mecca just two days ahead of the election.

Vice president-elect Jusuf Kalla, a successful businessman from the eastern island of Sulawesi, served as vice president in the first term of outgoing president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and earned a reputation for being a shrewd politician.

In a separate interview with Reuters last week, Kalla said he intended to use his office to complement Jokowi’s, rather than eclipse the native of Java island, who is relatively inexperienced on the national stage.

“I learned when working with [Yudhoyono] that there shouldn’t be two suns in the [sky]. I’ll try to do that,” said Kalla.

Kalla, 72, came to the fore during the campaign as he offset Jokowi’s typically soft-spoken Javanese style in a series of television debates between the two tickets. Kalla sharply criticized rival Prabowo’s human rights record and choice of coalition partners.

Concerns persist that Jokowi may be overwhelmed by Megawati and her inner circle on policymaking. He has done little to dispel this image but told Reuters that 80 percent of his cabinet picks will be based on merit rather than on deals made with other parties and key supporters.

“I have already said I respect Megawati very much,” Jokowi told Reuters in mid-July. “But I have also said that I will be very independent. If there is someone who says that I’m a puppet, that is a big mistake.”