The City with a Short Fuse

How a shrewd politician defused ethnic tension and improved public services in one of Indonesia’s most dysfunctional cities.


Note: This article is an abridged version of a longer historical case study produced by Innovations for Successful Societies, a research program at Princeton University.

Note: This article is an abridged version of a longer historical case study produced by Innovations for Successful Societies, a research program at Princeton University.

In 2005, Mayor Joko Widodo ("Jokowi") campaigned on the slogan Berseri Tanpa Korupsi, "Beauty Without Corruption," pledging to revitalize Surakarta, Indonesia, a city of half a million, as a clean, safe place to live and work. But the city’s ubiquitous street vendors typified the kinds of problems he would face as mayor. With insufficient opportunities for regular employment, nearly 6,000 residents eked out a living by selling everything from food to second-hand goods along Solo’s roadways. Established shopkeepers lost business and neighbors complained about the loss of open space, road congestion, and litter in public parks and on sidewalks.

Other pressing issues festered as well. Traditional markets, where traders sold fresh produce or wares in simple stalls, had long resisted being converted into modern shopping centers .Citizens complained of lengthy delays in securing routine government documents like business permits. Many poor citizens lived in substandard housing, and did not have access to services.

Solo — as Surakarta is known because of the river running through it — was the most densely populated city in central Java in 2005. Most of its citizens were Javanese, with a minority of Chinese-Indonesians. Nearly 73 percent were Muslim and about 25 percent were Christian. The remainder followed Buddhism or Hinduism. In the mix of cultures and religions, tensions often ran high. Disparities between poor and wealthy residents exacerbated the city’s tensions, with 16 percent living below the poverty line.

Civil unrest had earned Solo the dubious title of sumbu pendek — the city with a "short fuse." In 1998 — as the effects of the Asian financial crisis deepened — crowds protesting rising oil prices, food shortages, and unemployment destroyed or damaged 330 businesses and 900 vehicles, most belonging to the ethnic Chinese minority. In 1999, violence flared again when supporters of the losing presidential candidate burned down Solo’s City Hall. An International Crisis Group report also traced roots of the militant Islamic organization Jemaah Islamiyah — a Southeast Asian group with links to al Qaeda — to Solo. 

When Jokowi took office in 2005, a focal point of complaint was Banjarsari, a park with a monument commemorating the struggle for independence from Dutch rule, where street vendors crowded walkways and roads. In 2004, citizens who lived near the park refused to celebrate Independence Day as part of a high-profile protest against the street vendors’ presence. (The vendors had proliferated after the 1997 Asian financial crisis.) For their part, street vendors complained that city police and government officials abused them, that they often paid illegal fees to avoid being evicted, and that they were in constant danger of losing their places of business. Although the traditional markets were vulnerable to fire, sellers organized against renovations or rehabilitations, fearing that the government would convert the traditional markets into malls and charge higher rents.

The city’s inaction rendered other aspects of business and day-to-day life cumbersome. Business owners had to wait for months to obtain business permits or licenses. Because no central department handled permits, applicants had to frequent multiple offices to get the necessary approvals and bribe civil servants to expedite applications. Similar problems vexed citizens who tried to get government-issued identity cards.

Squatter settlements along the river were another challenge. Local laws prohibited building along the river because of habitual heavy rains and the danger of floods; but in 2005, about 2,000 temporary houses with 8,000 inhabitants lined the riverbank. In addition, each of the city’s 51 neighborhoods had a large number of temporary and substandard housing, lacking access to sanitation, drainage and water facilities, and were prone to fires. Poor residents could not afford health or education services either.

Jokowi’s challenges included his own lack of political experience. In 2005, a national decentralization program mandated elections for local government offices; Jokowi, a Muslim and a prominent member of the city’s business community, sought to become a candidate of the Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P), a prominent left-leaning political organization with widespread support in Solo. He aligned with F.X. Hadi Rudyatmo, a Christian, to secure his party’s nomination for mayor. Rudyatmo, who headed the PDI-P in Solo, was a grassroots organizer and a seasoned politician. The two won with 36 percent of the votes, more than the 30 percent required to avoid a runoff.

Upon taking office, building support both inside and outside the government was crucial. Political infighting had undermined the efforts of Jokowi’s predecessor. But the new team faced high public expectations as Solo’s first democratically elected mayor and vice mayor. The PDI-P’s political base included poor and marginalized groups, and the challenge for Jokowi and Rudyatmo was to address their needs for services and employment while facilitating the business and investment climate.

Achieving real gains required Jokowi to deepen his understanding of the city’s diverse interest groups, and so he reached out to them. The mayor convened City Hall meetings and other events to encourage citizens to share their views about what the government was doing. "He got ideas from the community," said Ahyani Sidik, a prominent city official. "This is how the ideas got generated: From the stakeholders in the city."

Jokowi knew the value of a strong public image. Having built substantial wealth from his importing business, Jokowi donated his mayoral salary to the city. He used his predecessor’s official car rather than buying a new one, and he flew economy class. The mayor’s approach set a tone of prioritizing public service over personal gain.

To encourage better performance, Jokowi created training opportunities for civil servants and encouraged them to study how regional neighbors such as Singapore or South Korea dealt with street vendor management, tourism services, and other issues that confronted Solo. He pressed for greater collaboration among city officials. He held meetings with all department heads at his office, and followed up regularly on decisions made at meetings. He visited different municipal offices unannounced — keeping civil servants on their toes — and held monthly evaluations. The mayor and the vice-mayor often visited neighborhoods in order to hear recommendations and complaints from citizens. Jokowi also held regular meetings at his residence, a rare gesture for a top Indonesian official.

Jokowi believed that the city’s cultural heritage was a significant but largely unexploited asset. With hundreds of performing arts schools teaching traditional dance, music, and theater, Solo could attract much-needed tourism and growth. A focus on heritage could inspire pride and attract support from diverse social and economic groups that had often come into conflict in the past. 

Stimulating the local economy and boosting employment were Jokowi’s bottom-line aims, but he was aware that first he had to tackle the city’s immediate problems. Soon after taking office, Jokowi announced his plan to move the vendors from the Banjarsari Park area by 17 August, Independence Day. But street vendors protested strongly and openly, and threatened that the government would have to use force to evict them.

Recognizing the potential for serious repercussions, Jokowi quickly shifted gears. He reached out to street vendors representatives willing to work out a nonviolent solution. He held more than 50 lunch meetings with representatives and listened to the vendors’ concerns. Jokowi eventually pledged to build appropriate facilities for street vendors to relocate, to provide public transport and access, and to publicize the location. He also offered incentives to vendors who agreed to move: free carts and umbrella tents or kiosks, education and training, affordable loans to survive in the new market, and a tax exemption for the first six months. The two sides reached an agreement in December 2005; design and construction of the first new marketplace started the following month.

In mid-2006, the market was ready, and Jokowi led a celebratory procession marking the relocation from Banjarsari to the new site. Akbarudin Arif, from an NGO network for marginalized groups, Kompip, attributed the successful resolution to Jokowi’s openness to dialogue: "It was a dramatic situation, but he was able to replace a thousand vendors in peace. This has never happened in any city in Indonesia. There was no bloodshed or violence. It was also the first time that Jokowi sensed people’s acceptance. After this, he continued the dialogue with citizens and believed that his style could work." The amicable Banjarsari resettlement helped ease the relocation of other street vendor sites. Many vendors reported higher profits because of improved facilities and services. The project received approval from local NGOs because it gave vendors security of livelihood from local officials threatening to sweep them off the streets. Still, some relocation efforts went poorly, and a number of street vendors complained that they lost business.

Jokowi also took steps to upgrade traditional markets to meet safety and sanitation regulations, assuring the market sellers that the city would pay renovation costs and not raise rents. And in an important concession, he worked with the city council to ban construction of modern malls within 500 meters of traditional markets. (The city later passed an act to preserve and protect traditional markets, acknowledging their contribution to the cultural heritage and character of Solo.)

But bringing more jobs to Solo required efforts aimed at the broader business community. Jokowi then turned to inefficiencies in city offices that issued business licenses and permits.  Borrowing an idea implemented in other areas of Indonesia, in December 2005, Solo inaugurated a "One Stop Service" scheme, creating offices that provided 28 different services, such as administering construction permits, tourist guide licenses, industrial business permits, franchise permits, and shopping center permissions. Customers went to a single building where civil servants were available to assist them. Applicants had to fill out only one form for most services, and once approved, could pick up their permits within six days. The service also allowed dissatisfied customers to file grievances at a help desk. Jokowi took a personal interest in making sure that employees followed procedures and did not solicit or accept bribes.

In tandem with helping businesses expand, Jokowi sought to address concerns of the poorest residents. He worked with the Department of Community, Women and Children Empowerment, and Family Planning to help renovate substandard housing and move squatters to safer locations. The department also provided training and employment opportunities for those living in squatter communities, focusing in particular on women. While there was no violence, in 2009, residents of one squatter settlement demonstrated against the government, saying they were being forced to relocate in order to benefit businesses. Other complaints arose when the government relocated poor residents to distant suburbs, making it difficult to reach city and public services because of poor infrastructure and public transportation. (During his second term, Jokowi focused on projects to improve transportation infrastructure, connecting remote areas with the city center and surrounding provinces.)

The mayor’s office sought to improve access to health services as well. Jokowi began to work with Solo’s Department of Health to supplement the national healthcare policy for the poor, and — after evaluating healthcare plans in other Indonesian cities — the department issued insurance cards to residents who met 14 agency-set standards of poverty related to housing, access to utilities, nutrition, occupation and income, education, and savings. The department solicited the help of Solo’s active NGO community to register residents for the free health services. But Solo’s healthcare support program did not reach all of the city’s poor, many of whom did not understand the registration process or did not believe that they would actually get the service. (Health officials continued to work with NGOs and hold awareness workshops at community health centers and in neighborhoods annually.)

Jokowi also rebranded Solo as an arts and culture destination. He worked with the Bureau of Culture and Tourism in cooperation with performing arts schools and citizen committees to organize festivals involving traditional music, performances, batik, and other cultural events. In 2009, Jokowi launched a new marketing campaign to publicize a positive image of the city: "Solo’s Future is Solo’s Past." He invited national media outlets to visit and report on the city’s growth and development. Delegations from Solo also marketed the city abroad, sending groups to attend festivals in Singapore, Malaysia, and Australia.

But Solo’s diversity presented special challenges; an emphasis on arts and culture could easily alienate conservative Islamic groups. Jokowi met and spoke directly with religious and ethnic leaders to address their concerns. He maintained close ties with Javanese Muslim communities, regularly joining religious studies at local mosques and Islamic centers and using the opportunity to discuss government policy with community leaders and students. Religious leaders helped the mayor start the Religious Peace Forum, an inclusive discussion group that met regularly to consider interfaith issues.

Jokowi also took other steps to keep potential unrest under control. He offered economic opportunities in violence-prone areas to the unemployed, youth, and other vulnerable citizens in order to deflect recruitment by extremist groups. Programs offered training in vocations such as automotive repair and tailoring, and also included loans for small businesses. The administration moved quickly when signs of instability arose, such as in February 2011, when riots broke out in another city in central Java, or in September 2011, when a bomb destroyed a Protestant church. (Immediately after the bombing, Jokowi spoke on the radio stressing that Solo was a safe city, and that the bombing did not mean that there was conflict between the city’s Christians and Muslims.)

As his first term came to an end in June 2010, Jokowi won praise for his reforms. Solo had earned a reputation as one of Indonesia’s most business-friendly cities. Favorable publicity and cultural events attracted tourists, boosted the local economy, and paved the way for larger investments. In 2010, citizens endorsed the reforms when they re-elected Jokowi and Rudyatmo for a second term.

Despite Solo’s successes, problems remained. The city’s overall economic and social indicators showed little improvement. Jokowi angered street vendors by tightening regulations preventing them from expanding to new areas. Vendors felt they had a right to do business wherever they chose if the city could not adequately provide jobs. Arif of Kompip suggested that the policy had contributed to the rising poverty in Solo: "If the government tries to close informal sectors, and if people lose jobs because of [vendor] relocations, then the poverty numbers rise."

Critics found fault with other aspects of Jokowi’s administration, such as that he did not tackle corruption effectively. Residents also worried whether reforms were sustainable after 2015, when Jokowi’s second term would end, fearing that the changes he initiated might not continue under his successor.

Jokowi’s adeptness in balancing the needs and concerns of constituents, and forming coalitions offers lessons for other cities with similar issues. His personal and open approach allowed him to build trust and support, giving him the ability to bring about changes. Unlike his predecessors, he kept the door open for street and traditional market vendors, listened to their concerns, and negotiated a solution acceptable to both parties. As he noted: "Show up, and you solve 90 percent of the problem. Then we follow through with the other 10 percent." After tackling hot-button issues, the mayor focused on solving deeper problems of affordable housing, healthcare, and economic growth. He also took advantage of Solo’s competitive advantage in arts and culture, and marketed the city in Indonesia and abroad. Jokowi’s strategies paid off and contributed to Solo’s growth and positive image worldwide.

Rushda Majeed is a researcher and consultant focused on institutional and policy reform. Twitter: @RushdaMajeed

More from Foreign Policy

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.
Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.

At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment

Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.

How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China

As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.

What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal

Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.

A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.
A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.

Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust

Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.