April 24 (Bloomberg) -- The popularity of Joko Widodo is giving traction to local leaders in Southeast Asia’s biggest economy as they adopt the hands-on style that helped propel Jakarta’s governor to the front of the presidential race.
Widodo is the best-known of the officials to emerge from outside the machinery of the major parties after a decade of direct elections. While pushing power outward has led to graft in some Indonesian towns, the popularity of officials such as the mayors of Bandung and Surabaya may force the big parties to become more responsive to concerns among the 250 million-strong population about corruption, infrastructure and health services.
“In Indonesia, if you are a leader you must come down to the ground level, so not be just the driver but also be the mechanic,” said Ridwan Kamil, 42, who since September has been mayor of Bandung in West Java, a city of 2.6 million people. “Local leaders are pragmatic, problem solvers,” he said in an interview in Jakarta on March 28.
Kamil and Tri Rismaharini from Surabaya are starting to garner attention nationally, potentially widening the pool of future leaders in a country where a lack of roads, bridges and ports has slowed growth. Widodo’s popularity rests on hopes he can replicate his can-do approach in Jakarta and create a more nimble government, even as he looks to form a coalition during the presidential campaign. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono now governs with a group of five other parties.
“The era of political dynasties and feudalistic culture in politics is starting to be left behind,” Yunarto Wijaya, executive director of consultancy Charta Politika Indonesia, said April 11. “That’s given greater room for local figures, many of whom are simple bureaucrats, or ordinary people whose achievements stand out, to then become leaders, and this is what has happened to Jokowi,” he said, referring to Widodo by his nickname.
Widodo, 52, leads popularity polls for July’s election, ahead of tycoon Aburizal Bakrie, a former economy minister who is head of the family that owns the Bakrie Group, and ex-general Prabowo Subianto, who was once married to the daughter of former dictator Suharto. A Roy Morgan survey in March showed Widodo on 45 percent of votes, 30 percentage points ahead of Prabowo.
The next government must revive an economy that grew at the slowest pace in four years in 2013. While Indonesia’s poverty rate fell to 12 percent in 2012 from 16 percent in 2005, a World Bank report in March showed that income inequality as measured by the gini coefficient widened to 0.41 from 0.35 over the same period, past the 0.4 level that the United Nations has said is a predictor of social unrest.
The Democratic Party of Yudhoyono, who is barred from running for a third term, was the biggest loser in the April 9 parliament ballot, falling to an estimated 9.7 percent of the vote from 20.8 percent in 2009, according to survey company Lingkaran Survei Indonesia. Widodo’s party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, won the most votes at about 19 percent, according to LSI.
Widodo’s political success is based on a hands-on approach to solving problems adopted when he became the first directly-elected mayor of the Central Java town of Solo in 2005: 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.
Indonesia’s move to decentralize the central government in 2001 has enabled local leaders to confront problems on the ground, said Budi Sulistyono, who is in charge of Ngawi, a regency of about 912,000 people in East Java.
“Knowing the difficulties of your people is crucial,” Sulistyono, 53, said on March 31. “The provincial government is more administrative in nature whereas all problems of the city, of the people in this region are almost entirely handled by the regent.”
Ganjar Pranowo, 45, who became governor of Central Java in August, is another leader to look out for as he exudes a “presidential aura”, said Marcus Mietzner, associate professor at the Australian National University in Canberra and author of “Money, Power and Ideology: Political Parties in Post-Authoritarian Indonesia.”
“The biggest challenge for them is that Jokowi could be a 10-year proposition” if he becomes president, Mietzner said. “For Risma, Ganjar and others, the time to go into national politics would be the second term.”
The end of Suharto’s three-decade rule at the height of the Asian financial crisis in 1998 led the government to devolve power to the regions to prevent the archipelago from breaking apart. Dubbed the Big Bang decentralization in 2001, Indonesia almost doubled the share of government spending to regions, transferred almost two thirds of the central government workforce, and handed over more than 16,000 public services such as hospitals and schools, according to a 2003 World Bank report.
“A politician, a leader, can only be said to have been tested when he has a political career of leading a smaller region,” Charta Politika’s Wijaya said. They contrast with “political party figures, who sometimes don’t have any experience in the government, have not been tested with a political career, but because of blue blood or because of their money to form a political party are instantly nominated for president.”
For turning Solo from a “crime-ridden” city into a regional center for the arts, Widodo came third in the 2012 World Mayor Prize by the City Mayors Foundation, a London-based think tank.
The foundation named Rismaharini, who leads Indonesia’s second-largest city of Surabaya in East Java, mayor of the month for February. The 52-year-old, who has been running the city since September 2010, convinced Jakarta to push ahead with a port development after a two-decade standstill, spurring a 200 percent rise in Surabaya port traffic, according to the foundation.
In Bandung, Kamil said he uses social media to direct complaints about public service to the relevant office in his administration, allowing everyone to monitor progress online. Photos of cleared sewers and fixed potholes are uploaded via Twitter as each office tries to bring the complaint level down to zero, said Kamil, a University of California, Berkeley, graduate.
“I believe in reward and punishment,” Kamil said. “Every three months I review my officials and in every three months there must be improvement.”
Still, as power spread with decentralization, corruption too trickled from Jakarta to the regions. Indonesia ranked 114th among 177 countries in a 2013 Transparency International survey on corruption perceptions.
Of the 500 heads of local administrations, about 300 are implicated in various graft cases, Agus Santoso, deputy chairman at the nation’s anti-money laundering agency, said Feb. 21. Bandung is the only Indonesian city that, together with the nation’s corruption eradication commission, designed an anti-graft program, according to Kamil.
In Indonesia’s capital of 9.6 million people it’s easy to make 100 billion rupiah ($8.6 million) on the side, said Jakarta Deputy Governor Basuki Purnama.
“Are you ready to die?” Purnama said of working against vested interests. “Everything you decide will affect the interests of other people, those who have had it comfortable for 30 to 40 years.”
Bandung’s Kamil said he often bikes to work, adding he’s setting an example as Rismaharini does in Surabaya by picking up garbage on her way to work and Widodo with his daily meetings with locals.
“No longer can leaders keep their distance from their people,” Kamil said. “They must mingle and eat among them.”
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