Whatever Happened to Indonesia’s Answer to Obama?

President Joko Widodo has become an embarrassment for many young Indonesians, like me.


In July 2014, I posted to social media a photo of my fingers dipped in purple ink, raised in an exultant two-finger salute: I had just cast my vote for Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, candidate number two on the ballot in the Indonesian presidential race. I wasn’t alone: Almost 71 million voters ushered Jokowi into the presidency of the world’s third-largest democracy, a country of more than 250 million people spread across some 17,000 islands.

On Oct. 26, Jokowi visited the White House and met with President Barack Obama — a meeting that seemed like a success for both leaders. As the United States negotiates its pivot to Asia and builds partnerships to combat Islamist extremism, Obama stands to gain in embracing the leader of Southeast Asia’s largest economy and the world’s largest Muslim nation by population — and the country where he famously spent part of his youth. After meeting with Obama, Jokowi announced that Indonesia intends to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a broad free-trade agreement encompassing 40 percent of the world’s economy. (Jokowi had planned to spend five days in the United States, but said he would cut it short and return to Indonesia on the evening of Oct. 27 to deal with a rising humanitarian crisis: Haze from hundreds of illegal fires burning in the archipelago are engulfing parts of Southeast Asia.)

The trip is Jokowi’s first presidential visit to the United States — a long way to travel for a former furniture salesman from a small countryside city.

Jokowi’s journey, from humble beginnings to the presidency, was a long way for me, too. As a then 23-year-old seasoned cynic, Jokowi’s was the first democratic election I was excited about. In Indonesia, we haven’t had that many democratic presidential elections: the 31-year dictatorial reign of Suharto only ended in 1998. After the repressive Suharto and, more recently, the democratically elected but ineffectual former Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesians were fatigued by the corruption-riddled establishment. In Jokowi, a political outsider who prioritized ethical and sustainable development, we finally saw our hope in Indonesia’s most progressive candidate yet — and a chance to wrest power from the old guard.

Jokowi’s election was more than a political triumph; it was a cultural phenomenon, not unlike Obama’s 2008 run. The Jokowi campaign, which ran on the slogan “Jokowi Is Us,” had a “Yes We Can” ring to it, and his rapid, unexpected rise mirrored Obama’s. Like Obama in 2008, Jokowi ran against a bulwark of the establishment: Prabowo Subianto, a former general once married into Suharto’s family. Jokowi was a fresh face with a clean track record.

Over the campaign season in the summer of 2014, Jokowi surged, rousing even the politically disillusioned. Activists hit the streets, and social media campaigns took off with the hashtag #JKW4P — Jokowi for president. Roughly 95 million election-related tweets were sent out between the start of 2014 and the July 9 election, along with 200 million Facebook interactions on the topic, in four months leading to the elections. Some even took to wearing checkered shirts, which Jokowi often wore on the campaign trail.

I even felt the energy in Washington, where I was living. Ten-thousand miles away, I stayed up despite the 11-hour time difference to follow presidential debates. I kept my finger on Twitter and Facebook pulses, where friends and family forwarded me the latest polls and commentaries.

And then there was the “two-finger salute.” Among my Indonesian friends, co-workers, and even strangers on the Internet, the peace sign became a cultural symbol, a cue we used to identify our kinship in a common cause. We weren’t just supporting a candidate; we were supporting his campaign for a “mental revolution” toward a socially progressive Indonesia — our change we could believe in.

But Jokowi’s electric victory soon gave way to abject disappointment. A year into his presidency, he has failed to deliver on improving the economy and defending human rights, as he had promised on the campaign trail.

His visit to the White House this week might well be a welcome escape from wrath at home, where his approval rating hovers at 40 percent — embarrassingly low by Indonesian standards.

What happened to the man I voted for?

* * *

In the 2014 election, Jokowi successfully cultivated the image of an outsider — a man who rose above the corruption of Jakarta while at the same time maintaining his common touch. His background helped. Jokowi was born into a family of modest means in Solo, a quiet city on the island of Java, Indonesia’s political and economic center. Before winning the 2005 mayoral elections for Solo, he worked in his family’s furniture trade. Jokowi’s astute policies to revitalize the city earned him a reputation as an efficacious yet humble leader, one who never shed the demeanour of an ordinary resident. In 2010, he was reelected with 90 percent of the vote.

In 2012, he ran for governor of Jakarta, Indonesia’s chaotic capital of 10 million, and ousted the incumbent in a surprise victory. While governor, Jokowi launched a successful free health care system, broke ground on a long-awaited mass transit system, and pioneered blusukansunannounced visits to slums. In contrast to other important Indonesian politicians, Jokowi appeared perfectly at ease walking around the city’s most destitute neighborhoods, talking with whomever he encountered.

His early achievements as a politician were, by my standards, ideal — and perhaps impossible to replicate on a national stage.

Still, Jokowi was going to try to govern Indonesia like he governed Jakarta. In March 2014, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) announced his presidential candidacy to tense apprehension: Focus on Jakarta first, fix the country later, some of my friends said. Others worried he would become a pawn of PDI-P leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, a former president and daughter of Indonesia’s founding father Sukarno with a noted thirst for power. It didn’t help when Jokowi chose Jusuf Kalla as his running mate, a vice president under Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and firebrand who has publicly condoned extrajudicial violence. And others simply wondered if he could do the job: Solo was a small city, and with only two years of Jakarta governorship under his belt, could he handle a nation mired in a $20 billion fiscal deficit?

When it came to this kind of doubt, however, I was less reserved. Although Indonesian politics doesn’t quite conform to the U.S. right-left spectrum, roughly speaking, I personally lean further left than most of my compatriots. I was raised in an atypically secular, middle-class family of teachers and engineers. I came of voting age in the post-Suharto era. Unlike our parents, my generation grew up in a freer, plural political sphere. I wanted a candidate who advocated for economic equity. I sought a champion for the rights of women, the LGBTQ community, and religious and ethnic minorities. And, in a country with the world’s highest rate of deforestation, I longed for someone who could overhaul resource management.

That said, I knew Jokowi wasn’t perfect. Even if he could summon the political backing to spur those reforms, progress would take longer than one presidency. Nevertheless, when it came to a battle between Jokowi and Prabowo, a military man allegedly involved in the abduction and torture of pro-democracy activists leading up to Suharto’s 1998 overthrow, the choice was easy. Jokowi was a rare step in the right direction.

That is, until he reeled backward.

Jokowi’s blunders came early, starting with the cabinet he appointed just a week after taking office. Although he appointed some competent technocrats, the rights community excoriated him for naming Ryamizard Ryacudu, a former army chief close to Megawati who blatantly disregarded human rights while quashing the country’s separatist movements, as his defense minister.

And despite popular policies like an ambitious nationwide project to provide 1 million affordable homes, the public groaned as Indonesia’s currency, the rupiah, tumbled, and GDP growth reached a six-year low of 4.7 percent. Meanwhile, the closest Jokowi’s government has come to addressing the nation’s slashed-and-burned forests appears to be by letting them blaze away: The ongoing haze crisis has affected 25 million Indonesians, made half a million people ill, and forced thousands to evacuate their homes.

For me, it was the executions that did it. In April, Jokowi defied pleas from foreign governments and his own constituents in sanctioning the executions of eight people convicted of drug crimes. (Indonesia resumed capital punishment in 2013 after a five-year gap.) The April executions incited global outrage: Australia, with two citizens among those killed, temporarily withdrew its ambassador hours after the executions. While like most citizens I can tolerate my government occasionally acting contrary to my convictions, the murder of nonviolent drug offenders to score domestic political points felt like a personal affront. With my two-fingered vote, I helped give him that power. And that ink now feels like blood on my hands.

I wasn’t alone in this feeling — and it’s one that persists.

On the human rights front, Jokowi’s administration has achieved little progress. Islamist hard-liners continue to burn churches, and security forces are still attacking civilians in the province of West Papua in a battle against separatists. Meanwhile, proposed revisions to the criminal code threaten to impose fines for the sale of contraceptives while also seeking to criminalize adultery and cohabitation. Then, on Oct. 19, Jakarta began its controversial “Defend the Nation” program. The Defense Ministry’s initiative institutes voluntary “military training” for civilians, coupling drills with character-building lessons. Defense Minister Ryamizard lauded it as “a right and an obligation.” That wasn’t the “mental revolution” we expected. Instead, Jokowi led the country in its slow regression into the nationalist militarism we strove to evade in outvoting Prabowo’s supporters.

Upon his White House visit, I anxiously watched my president meet his U.S. counterpart and wondered what they privately discussed. Perhaps Obama reminisced with Jokowi over his youth in Jakarta. Or perhaps Obama divulged how to stay afloat in sinking public opinion, from one man riding out his run to another who is, I often need to remind myself, just starting his.


Aria Danaparamita is a journalist based in Jakarta, Indonesia. She covers social transitions in Southeast Asia. @mitatweets

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola