When Putut Gunawan sees Indonesian presidential candidate Joko Widodo on television thronged by admirers and joking with reporters, he barely recognizes the furniture exporter he helped enter politics nine years ago.
“Jokowi in 2005 was so different,” Gunawan said, using the nickname of the man whose successful campaign for mayor of the central Java city of Solo he helped manage.
Whether meeting a handful of people or at a large campaign stop Widodo, 52, “was painfully shy and when he spoke he was nervous,” Gunawan recalled from a cafe in Solo. Now he is the candidate for the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, in a presidential election to be held in July.
Widodo’s simple way of speaking resounded among Solo voters, sparking a meteoric rise in popularity that propelled him to the Jakarta governorship in 2012. Retaining his down-to-earth image at the helm of the nation’s capital -- he sometimes commutes by bicycle -- Widodo has become the front-runner to lead a nation that’s struggled to rein in corruption since the ouster of dictator Suharto in 1998.
While Widodo has built a reputation for competence, taking steps to address Jakarta traffic and flooding, he has yet to detail approaches to the broader economic and social challenges for Southeast Asia’s largest economy. The world’s fourth-most populous nation has seen growth slump to a four-year low, with periodic currency tumbles exacerbated by concern at public largesse in fuel subsidies.
“He has not yet had to disclose any of his views on issues of national importance,” said Paul Rowland, a political analyst based in Jakarta who was formerly Indonesia country director for the National Democratic Institute, a non-government advocacy group. “By becoming a candidate he’s going to have to stick his head up.”
Widodo’s political success in Solo and Jakarta followed a similar model: Find out what concerns people by making daily visits to the areas where they live, the markets where they shop and the streets where they sit stalled in choking traffic. Among his daily walks through Jakarta’s streets he waded in January through knee-deep floodwaters.
The character cultivated as governor has given Widodo a public image distinct from the nation’s leaders since Suharto’s rule -- the brief tenure of B.J. Habibie, Abdurrahman Wahid, Megawati Soekarnoputri -- the daughter of Indonesia’s founding father Soekarno -- and current president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
“People want leaders with empathy, who understand their problems,” said Leonard Sebastian, associate professor and coordinator of the Indonesia program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Indonesian politicians are often viewed as distant and operating with a sense of entitlement, he said.
“The previous generation of leaders that emerged after the fall of Suharto have generally been drawn from elite circles and operate in that sort of manner,” Sebastian said. “They are rather remote from the people, whereas Jokowi is seen as coming from the people.”
Widodo grew up in a village outside Solo, a city among the volcanoes of Java that is now home to 545,000 people. His father had a small business selling lumber. In the late 1970s he started at a high school in Solo that drew students from surrounding villages.
Those who knew him remember a rail-thin boy with shaggy hair who would ride to school on a green Yamaha RS100 motorcycle he borrowed from his uncle. They describe a diligent student who attended after-school study groups.
“Even in his school days Jokowi was considered honest,” said H. Teguh, 53, a high school friend from the same graduating class. “He refused to cheat and he didn’t want to share or give away his answers.”
Teguh said in his spare time Widodo would help his uncle collect wood to use in the family’s furniture business. While Widodo didn’t talk much he was sociable, going with friends to matinees to watch Shaolin action movies and James Bond films.
“There wasn’t any sign back then that he would be a leader,” Haridatin Budi Satriani, 65, who taught Widodo’s art class, said in an office at the school. “He was quiet, but when you looked at his eyes you could tell he was carefully observing everything.”
Widodo, who after university started his own furniture company, said it was seeing the hardships that many people faced in Solo that made him want to go into politics, something his friends and business associates encouraged.
“I saw my city was not improving,” Widodo said in an interview in Jakarta on March 6. “When I go to the people, when I go to the slum area to the riverbank, I saw the people living there in bad condition.”
Widodo’s everyman approach helped his popularity spread beyond Solo and Jakarta across a country with the largest Islamic population in the world. An Indikator Politik Indonesia poll released March 18 put him more than 25 percentage points ahead of his closest competitor for the presidency, Prabowo Subianto, a former general who was once married to Suharto’s daughter.
The same poll of 1,720 people asked which of four leading candidates they trusted most on more than a dozen issues from fighting corruption to national security to freedom of expression. Widodo came out top on every one.
Widodo has distanced himself from traditional politicians in other ways, from the way he dresses when meeting the public - - a plain white shirt and slacks as opposed the khaki-colored uniform of bureaucrats -- to the way he gets to work, and the music he listens to. He lists heavy metal bands Metallica, Megadeth, Lamb of God and Napalm Death among his favorites.
“Rock music gives me motivation, gives me spirit about the environment, about the corruption, about justice,” he says. “The beat of the drum -- boom, boom -- gives me spirit.”
Widodo’s greatest challenge may lie less in getting elected president than in governing a Group of 20 nation with a gross domestic product of $878 billion in 2012, should he take office. In addition to fighting corruption, building infrastructure, beefing up education and health care, and keeping religious extremists in check, Widodo may have to deal with those within his party seeking to influence him.
“He must develop people at the national level,” said Maswadi Rauf, a professor of political science at the University of Indonesia. “He doesn’t know much about the political elite at the national level,” he said. “This is the risk that people like Jokowi who emerge all of a sudden, that he will later be probably controlled by certain parties, that he becomes a puppet, a presidential puppet.”
The key to overcoming areas of inexperience and living up to expectations will be selecting the right vice president and ministers to advise Widodo and help him navigate the national bureaucracy, Sebastian said.
“There is so much potential there to be unleashed,” he said. “If he has able and capable technocratic leadership to support him, he could go far.”
For a potential Widodo administration to have the best shot at meeting expectations, his party must first make big gains in legislative elections on April 9, Wellian Wiranto, a Singapore-based economist at Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp., said today in a report.
The risk of disappointment “can be mitigated if Jokowi can prove his mettle by first helping his party to win a substantial chunk of seats –- and thus boost his intra-party standing,” Wiranto said. Choosing a vice-presidential candidate from another party would help him secure support for changes from other factions in parliament, he said.
Indonesia’s presidential election also comes at a time of greater foreign policy challenges, and little is known of Widodo’s views on such matters. Both China and Japan are vying for regional influence and seek a greater role for their respective militaries. Southeast Asian neighbors such as Vietnam and the Philippines are locked in territorial disputes with China over parts of the South China Sea.
Tensions with Australia rose last year after revelations that country spied on Indonesian officials, including tapping the phone of President Yudhoyono.
Singapore in February protested Indonesia’s decision to name a navy ship after marines who bombed a building on the island in 1965, while haze from fires around plantation areas on Sumatra island periodically blankets Malaysia and Singapore, leading to disputes over responsibility.
Widodo’s own uncle Miyono, who friends and relatives describe as a big influence on Widodo growing up, said he had yet to accomplish all he set out to in Jakarta and should have seen out his term before standing for president.
Miyono, who goes by one name, said his nephew didn’t ask for his advice about running. “He knows I don’t agree with it,” Miyono, 73, said at his house in Solo on March 4, just 10 days before Widodo told the nation he was a candidate.
“If he wants to move, become a president, then he’s not fulfilling his promise to the Jakarta people,” Miyono said. “If the promise is a week, then let it be a week, if it’s five years, then it should be five years.”
When told of his uncle’s comments, Widodo smiled and chuckled. “You know, my son, my daughter, my wife, they don’t like, they don’t agree when I enter politics to run the mayor election last time. Also the governor election.”
Widodo’s task as the presidential race heats up will be to outline in greater detail his platform for both the economy and foreign policy.
Back in 2005, out on the campaign trail, “the only thing he was able to say was ’My name is Jokowi, this is my wife Iriana, I have two or three companies and I have 10,000 employees,’” said Gunawan. “Only that, for three months of his campaign. He didn’t speak about politics, the economy or development.”
Even though he disagreed with the timing, Miyono said it appeared to be his nephew’s destiny to lead Indonesia.
“My advice to him would be the same as when he first ran for mayor: Work for the people and be honest,” Miyono said. “As long as Jokowi walks on the right path, God willing, he will be protected.”