Jokowi or bust

Author: Liam Gammon, ANU

Years from now, analysts will look back on Indonesia’s 2014 elections as a watershed moment in the country’s democratisation.

Jakarta governor Joko Widodo walks with school children during sight inspection of city projects in Jakarta, 22 August 2013. (Photo: AAP)

Less than a year out from the presidential poll scheduled for July, the race appears likely to be a contest between elite party figures who came of age during the Suharto era and a man who is as much an anti-establishment outsider as a national politician can effectively be in Indonesia.

The latter is Joko Widodo, the recently elected Jakarta governor, who has made this election exciting and whose political ascendancy makes a decisive break with the past a possibility in 2014. ‘Jokowi’ (as he is universally known) has a rags-to-riches back story that is a political consultant’s dream. Born on a riverside slum in the Central Java city of Solo, he graduated with a forestry degree before starting a furniture manufacturing business that eventually made him a millionaire. He was recruited by former president Megawati Sukarnoputri’s PDI-P party to run as mayor of Solo in 2005, and thanks to a program of improving public services and reducing corruption was reelected in 2010 with over 90 per cent of the votes.

Jokowi has shown more talent for using elected office to gain positive media coverage than any other politician in post-Suharto Indonesia. His personal style is key to this: folksy and self-effacing, he is the antithesis of the stereotypically officious and well-heeled Indonesian politician. By ordinary Indonesians, he is universally described as merakyat (down to earth); in particular, people remember gestures such as his declining to draw a salary while mayor, and transporting his spartan homemade furniture to his official residence in Jakarta after being elected governor there in 2012.

The remarkable speed of his rise has come mainly at the expense of the erstwhile presidential front runner, the Gerindra party boss Prabowo Subianto. As a former son-in-law of Suharto, Prabowo’s New Order credentials are unimpeachable. The redoubtable and polarising former special forces general stands accused of serious human rights abuses during the New Order. But he has sought to reinvent himself as a populist democrat, with financial backing from his energy tycoon brother (himself a Suharto family crony) allowing Prabowo to establish his own political party and to advertise heavily on national television to promote an image of himself as a tegas (firm, tough) leader to carry the nation to prosperity in the style of a Thaksin or Chavez.

Unfortunately for Prabowo, his attempt to burnish his reformist credentials by sponsoring Jokowi’s 2012 Jakarta campaign has backfired for him. The national media gave extensive coverage of the Jakarta race, and the tale of the plucky small-town mayor whose grassroots campaign defeated the capital’s formidable patronage machine was beamed into Indonesian homes from one end of the country to the other. Polls now show Jokowi shooting ahead of Prabowo. The latter’s only hope is that Jokowi does not get to run. At the time of writing, Jokowi’s supporters are nervously awaiting Megawati’s decision on whether or not to give her blessing to his candidacy. Polling shows that his popularity will carry the secular-nationalist PDI-P to huge gains in national and regional legislatures, but Megawati may be concerned about losing control of the party to him in the future.

In the end, Jokowi is now such an asset to the party that she might have little choice. A hint of a populist dynamic is beginning to be seen. Opponents within the Jakarta elite are reluctant to attack him publicly. As a former advisor to Jokowi put it: ‘he is atas angin [above the fray]. Anybody who attacks him will be seen as the bad guy’. Even rejection from his own party’s establishment, in the event of a conflict, will only enhance his standing as the ‘people’s candidate’, the anti-politician politician.

Unsurprisingly, Jokowi’s links to politico-business establishment figures are closer than his populist image would suggest. But his ascendency nevertheless represents a turning point in Indonesian politics. Most presidential candidates before him have been party, corporate or military elites (or combinations thereof) who came of age during the Suharto era. Never has an elected regional leader, such as a mayor or governor, been a serious contender for the presidency. The lesson of Joko Widodo is that a successful career in regional politics (and, critically, the free publicity that a smart politician can gain from one) is now an effective way to gain an appealing public profile on the national stage with the democratic legitimacy that a mere cashed-up party boss lacks. If Joko Widodo runs, he will win, and in doing so force some of Indonesia’s ancien regime elites into a long-overdue political retirement.

Liam Gammon is a PhD candidate at the ANU College of Asia & the Pacific.