Average Joko

Can Indonesia's newly elected, rags-to-riches president be a real reformer?

Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images
Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

JAKARTA — From a ramshackle slum in Central Java to the country’s highest halls of power, the meteoric rise of Indonesia’s new president-elect, Joko Widodo reads like a political fairytale.

The 53-year-old former furniture dealer turned mayor of the provincial city of Solo, and most recently Jakarta governor, has come an extraordinarily long way.

Indonesia, a hugely diverse and dynamic Southeast Asian nation of 242 million people improbably stretched across more than 17,000 islands, has since its 1949 inception been run by former military generals and elites. The election of Joko (widely known by his nickname Jokowi) — the humble boy that grew up around riverside bamboo shacks — is a meritocratic milestone in the country’s political evolution. Jokowi’s election “is symbolic of the fact that ordinary people can become president and that is significant,” said Endy Bayuni, a senior editor at the Jakarta Post, a local English newspaper. It “has raised hopes among people that there will be change.”

Jokowi’s grassroots victory is very much an anomaly. Current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former military general under Suharto, is the son-in-law of the late Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, a general involved in the communist purges of 1965, which killed half a million people. The president from 2001 to 2004, Megawati Sukarnoputri, who is currently the chairwoman of Jokowi’s party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), is the daughter of Indonesia’s founding father Sukarno. Even Abdurrahman Wahid, the fondly remembered half-blind president who was impeached for alleged corruption, comes from an influential religious family.

But Jokowi’s monumental victory isn’t uncontested. On July 9, Jokowi and his opponent, former army general Prabowo Subianto, drew on conflicting, unofficial vote counts to both declare they had won. As voting takes places on more than 6,000 islands, and with some polling stations so remote that ballot boxes are delivered via horseback and helicopter, it took two weeks to tabulate and cross check the 133.54 million votes. On July 22, the election committee announced Jokowi and his running mate, former vice-president Jusuf Kalla, won 53.15 percent of the national vote, to beat Prabowo by a margin of 6.3 percent.

Jokowi’s rival Prabowo was far more at home among the elites. The son of a prominent economic minister, Prabowo wed Suharto’s daughter Titiek and rose to become a special forces commander, before a military tribunal dismissed him for ordering the kidnapping of pro democracy activists in 1998. This year, albeit in a new capacity, Prabowo has once again been dismissed — a reality he remains unwilling to accept.

Throughout July, Prabowo proceeded to give interviews to the foreign press — something he avoided throughout the campaign — reiterating he had won, and in recent days has scrambled to get the announcement postponed on account of what he claims has been widespread and systematic fraud.

During the political wrangling in the lead up to the official results, Prabowo’s declarations of victory have appeared increasingly ridiculous. The polling institutions that initially produced results in his favor refused to be audited by the national body and suggestions the real count would prove him the victor were rapidly undermined as the counts trickled in from the provinces.

Hours before the national body was to formalize his defeat on July 22, Prabowo staged a dramatic press conference: declaring he was withdrawing from an undemocratic, unfair, and fraudulent process. His team has since vowed to pursue the case at the Constitutional Court. But this election has been more open and transparent than any in the past and it is widely believed that Prabowo will not be able to prove fraud to the extent it could reverse the final outcome.

Yet his refusal to concede has resulted in an awkward impasse. Jokowi, Prabowo and the President Yudhoyono warned supporters of the victor not celebrate on the streets to avoid unrest. Even as Jokowi receives congratulatory messages from world leaders like U.S. President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, there is a lingering sense of unease that it might not be over yet. “I think Prabowo has something else up his sleeve, we don’t know what at the moment but he is going to take his time,” says Bayuni.

Prabowo has been campaigning to become president for the past decade. But while it appears he is not ready to give up without a fight, Indonesia has chosen to make a definitive break from the past. In the 16 years since former authoritarian ruler Suharto was forced to concede power in the face of widespread discontent and economic turmoil, Indonesia has embarked on a reform agenda and embraced a boisterous, sometimes chaotic, democracy. Power has been decentralized, civil society has thrived, and the country’s media is no longer forced to obscure contentious stories in the back pages. GDP growth for the country, Southeast Asia’s largest economy, is expected to reach a still healthy 5.2 percent in 2014.

There have been problems, of course. Decentralization, for example, has allowed corruption to proliferate at all levels of government; the corruption watchdog organization Transparency International ranks Indonesia 114 out of 177 countries on its corruption index. Extraordinary cases of human rights abuses lay unresolved, chronic infrastructure shortfalls stymie the country’s much-touted potential, and more than 32 million Indonesians live below the poverty line.

But by most accounts, the transition to an open democracy has been largely successful. And the election of Jokowi — who received plaudits for increasing transparency in Jakarta — will help further that process.

Indonesia may have had its Arab Spring moment when it toppled Suharto, but the parliament has continued to be run by an elite pack of former military figures and influential businesspeople that flourished or grew influential under Suharto. For Indonesians particularly those in their mid-20s and 30s, Jokowi, a politician that has actualized real change — small unglamorous achievements such as building dams, breaking ground on a long stalled monorail project, adding trashcans to the sidewalks and new buses to the streets — has helped inspire 67 million Indonesians to vote for the first time.

People like Marzuki Mohamad, a.k.a “Kill the DJ,” a musician from the city of Yogyakarta not only decided to vote for the first time, but to write an unofficial hip hop Jokowi campaign anthem. The popular song’s chorus praises Jokowi for his honesty, humility, and hard work. Mohamad also helped organize a July 5 concert, which analysts cite as a key event in swaying swing voters. Dozens of Indonesia’s most renowned musicians performed, and when Jokowi arrived, he was given a rockstar’s welcome. “I’m really proud to have been a part of it, together with the people we joined to further democracy in Indonesia,” says Mohamad.

Analysts say Jokowi won this election on the back of strong support of an army of volunteers rather than his party, including previously apathetic Indonesians who over recent months have taken leave from their jobs and sacrificed sleep to pitch in where they could, drumming up support, organizing events, and monitoring the vote count. “We are very happy that all our hard work has paid off,” said Jokowi volunteer Dhyta Caturani, a woman in her mid-30s who works for a media NGO, after a small celebration of his victory in central Jakarta. “Jokowi owes it to his volunteers that supported him.”

But whether Jokowi can be the change-agent in power his supporters hope is an open question. There are concerns that Jokowi will hew too closely to the party line — the head of his party and his vice president are both deeply tied to the old guard. In mid-July, Jokowi told Reuters “I will be very independent. If there is someone who says that I’m a puppet, that is a big mistake.” Now, Jokowi owes it to his voters to prove it.

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