Jokowi’s Street Smarts Tested in Den of Vipers: Southeast Asia

As Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono sat in the front row at a ceremony to open the annual Jakarta Fair this month, the crowd feted the man sitting to his right.

Hundreds in attendance who were silent when the president was introduced broke into applause at the mention of Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, known locally as Jokowi. As both leaders watched a musical about the capital’s history, the actors sang: “Jokowi, we love you! God bless you!”

“Jokowi is a very humble man -- he’s down-to-earth and reaches out to people,” said Wirman Tanjung, a 44-year-old shop owner in Jakarta who attended the event and cheered on Widodo. Yudhoyono, on the other hand, “talks too much and hasn’t delivered.”

Widodo’s rise poses a challenge to former generals, family dynasties and connected tycoons who have dominated Indonesian politics since dictator Suharto’s ouster in 1998. If he makes a run at succeeding Yudhoyono as president next year, he’ll have to preserve his image as a humble, incorruptible outsider while cozying up to the political parties that have consolidated power in the world’s fourth-most populous country.

“He’s no doubt a popular figure and he does suggest that he may be a break from the past, but the question is, in a system like that where you are in a den of vipers, how on earth are you going to do it?” said Leonard Sebastian, an associate professor at the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. “He’s going to have to do a deal with them” or run a country “where he has a parliament that just won’t function.”

Top Choice

In a June 13 interview, Widodo said he was loyal to former leader Megawati Soekarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle and she would decide if he runs for president. The governor topped former general Prabowo Subianto as the number one choice to run the country of 250 million people in a survey conducted last month by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, the Jakarta Post reported.

Widodo would receive 29 percent of the vote, compared with 16 percent for Prabowo and 5.4 percent for Megawati, who finished second in the last two elections to Yudhoyono, the report said. While Megawati has yet to say whether she’d step aside in favor of Widodo next year her daughter, Puan Maharani, said the party leader is open to younger candidates standing for president, according to the report.

Presidential candidates need support from parties that win at least 20 percent of seats in the 560-member House of Representatives in April elections. Twelve parties will compete nationally in that parliamentary vote, down from 38 in the last election in 2009, after lawmakers tightened rules for participation.

Street Democracy

Much of Widodo’s appeal stems from regular visits to Jakarta’s poorest neighborhoods, some of which stretch until midnight. Widodo said he prefers speaking with citizens directly in what he calls “street democracy,” rather than relying on the views of a small circle of advisers.

“When we have a corporation, we must know what the customer wants, what the customers needs,” he said. “Also the politician must know what the people want, what the people need.”

With a year left in his final term, Yudhoyono is increasing subsidized fuel prices for the first time since 2008 to support a weakening currency. If left unchanged, the government estimates that energy subsidies would have reached $30 billion this year, sapping funds that could be spent on roads, bridges and power plants that are needed to bolster Southeast Asia’s biggest economy.

Megawati’s Influence

Widodo, 52, sold furniture before winning a 2005 election for mayor of Solo in central Java, about 570 kilometers (355 miles) southeast of Jakarta. As Solo’s mayor, Widodo focused on improving government services such as education and health.

Since winning the Jakarta governor’s job in September with Megawati’s backing, he has been courted by others, including Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party. Megawati’s opposition party, the third-biggest in parliament, organized protests last week over Yudhoyono’s push to raise fuel prices.

Widodo today signed a contract to restart a monorail project in an effort to ease the city’s traffic gridlock, after earlier pushing through a mass rapid transit project that had been delayed for decades. The governor yesterday said public transportation fees should rise as much as 43 percent to cover costs from higher fuel prices, the Jakarta Globe reported, after the central government capped increases at 15 percent.

Suharto’s Legacy

Widodo said he’s able to resist attempts at bribery. “Everyone can say no,” he said, when asked how he’d be able to avoid the corruption scandals that have plagued other political parties.

During most of Suharto’s time, only two parties were eligible to participate in national elections aside from Golkar, his political vehicle that is now headed by Aburizal Bakrie, whose family runs Bakrie Group. Over three decades, Suharto embezzled as much as $35 billion, according to estimates from the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime.

The legacy of corruption persists. Indonesia was ranked 118 of 176 countries in Transparency International’s 2012 corruption perceptions index, below the Philippines, Mexico and China.

Yudhoyono, who took office in 2004 and is ineligible to run again, has seen three senior officials of his party linked to corruption allegations in the past two years. Its former treasurer, Muhammad Nazaruddin, was sentenced to more than four years in prison for bribery involving building projects for the Southeast Asian Games in November 2011.

Not Tested

Widodo’s opponents question whether he’s ready to run the nation after a short period on the job as Jakarta governor and with some uncertainty over his views on key issues like fuel subsidies and foreign policy.

“Jokowi hasn’t been tested yet,” Ahmad Mubarok, a member of the Democrat party advisory board, said by phone. “If he leaves his post and fails, then it will ruin everything.”

Widodo’s lack of experience should alarm voters, said Meutya Hafid, a lawmaker with Golkar.

“He does not have a track record,” Hafid said. “Most people say ‘Oh he’s clean, there are no bad things about him.’ But, except from the experience in Solo, there is also nothing much we can learn.”

Among those who want to see Widodo make a run is Yenny Wahid, the daughter of Indonesia’s fourth president. Her party, formed two years ago with several million members, failed to meet the new Election Commission requirements to participate in the legislative elections next year, an outcome she attributed to “a mafia working in a supposedly democratic environment.”

‘Tremendous Leap’

“Imagine if we got someone up there who is really inspiring and can mobilize people,” said Wahid, who has been courted to join other parties. “We will make a tremendous leap.”

As next year’s presidential election approaches, Widodo will need to prove he is different, as he faces attacks from entrenched interests who view him as a threat as well as special requests from those financing his campaign, Wahid said.

“Everybody has their own interest that might not necessarily be in line with democracy,” she said. “It’s really up to Jokowi whether he will cater to these kind of demands.”

At the Jakarta Fair, shop owner Tanjung said Widodo’s efforts to help those affected by floods and push forward a mass transit system signaled a new direction.

“He doesn’t promise the sky,” Tanjung said. “But for what he does promise, he delivers.”

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