What is the meaning of Joko “Jokowi” Widodo? Assuming the “quick count” results from Wednesday’s election hold up, the presumptive next president of Indonesia has risen from obscurity in just two years to do something virtually no Asian politician in living memory has done: become a national leader on the basis of civic accomplishment, not family heritage or party connections.
Assuming feared dirty tricks from his opponent’s camp do not materialize to create uncertainty and instability, Jokowi has claimed the prize as a democrat and a true outsider. It is a rare feat. Every other country in Southeast Asia is governed by seasoned party veterans such as the warhorses of Malaysia and Singapore, the communist autocrats of Vietnam and Laos, the royalist-backed military now running Thailand, Cambodia’s perennial strongman Hun Sen or the aristocratic politicians who typically claim power in the Philippines.
But Jokowi, whose back story as a furniture maker turned mayor turned governor turned national phenomenon is by now globally known, represents a new breed of politician for his country and the region. He is the first Indonesian politician to ride to national prominence using the democratic rules painfully built since the demise of the three-decade dictatorship of the late President Suharto in 1998.
Spotted when he was still a modest businessman and a budding civic activist, he was elected mayor of the small city of Solo in 2005 and he was praised, liked and reelected for doing a good job. From there he came to the attention of former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, the chairman of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), who backed his successful run for Jakarta governor in 2012. Ironically, his other major ally was former General Prabowo Subianto, his rival for president; virtually every other major political actor at the time backed the entirely forgettable – but malleable – incumbent. The searing bitterness of the campaign was driven in large part because Prabowo once saw Jokowi’s rise as a harbinger of his own drive to be president.
The rise of Jokowi, though, is about something deeper than just winning elections. He has so far been a very capable elected official with no hint of corruption attached to him, but that is only part of his appeal. His supporters are also attracted to him precisely because he is that rare politician who seems uncynically close to the people he represents. Time and again Indonesians have told me that they supported Jokowi because he is “one of us.” No one would say that of the aloof and patrician current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who presides but rarely connects, nor of any other Indonesian president.
Jokowi’s narrow but still substantial preliminary victory, by a margin of about 53% to 47% for Prabowo, according to half-a-dozen reputable polling organizations, also attests to deep divisions in the nation. Prabowo’s carefully calibrated and well-financed campaign of nationalistic bombast, negativity and longing for a military past very nearly closed a gap that was once so wide in Jokowi’s favor it almost seemed as if he would be elected by acclamation.
Clearly there is still substantial yearning among many Indonesians for a strong man in the mold of founding president Sukarno or career dictator Suharto, a figure to command obedience not convince through deeds. That Prabowo was the last man standing in the race against Jokowi is itself remarkable – he is also in his own way something of an outsider, an extreme example because of his checkered military past of a man whose appeal is based on standing apart – and above his people. Prabowo rode into contention through the military, a path to power from another time, and he has been single-minded in his quest. That he fell short appears to mark the end of a long chapter in Indonesian history and the country’s emergence as a more modern – if imperfect – democracy.
It will be easy to move forward from here to the planned October presidential inauguration if there are no serious disruptions. The markets will greet a Jokowi victory favorably, business for the most part views him as more reasonable than Prabowo; even many Prabowo supporters find Jokowi acceptable precisely because he is non-threatening and hopefully competent.
Should Prabowo and his camp choose to push their claim of victory on the basis of quick count operations few trust, the result could be disastrous. Prabowo presumably has the political backing to make such a move, given that he has Yudhoyono, parts of the military and the powerful Golkar Party on his side, but to prevail would require reversing widely trusted early results and using shadowy court procedures. It would leave the nation uncertain and unstable, something that would be bad for Indonesia and bad for the region.
As a reminder of the perils of trying to reverse the popular will, we have Thailand, where the 2006 coup against Thaksin Shinawatra’s government has resulted in more than 8 years of governmental paralysis and now military rule – all to preserve vested interests.
This is not to say that Jokowi is akin to Thaksin, who represents a new oligarchy challenging an established one. Jokowi instead may be the harbinger of a new kind of politics for his nation and the region, a politician who rises on merit not money and bases his appeal on competency and paying attention to his constituents.
To be sure Jokowi will have a steep learning curve and he may yet stumble due to inexperience and the devilishly complex forces at play in governing Indonesia. But everyone in the region has a stake in the country getting it right. “We all want a better Indonesia,” Jokowi said in claiming victory. It is a sentiment that is easy to agree with. – Rappler.com
This was first published in the Edge Review.
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