James M. Lindsay

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Hello, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo: President of Indonesia

by James M. Lindsay
July 22, 2014

President Jokowi Indonesia Joko Widodo Joko "Jokowi" Widodo appears at a rally in Proklamasi Monument Park in Jakarta on July 9, 2014. (Darren Whiteside/Courtesy Reuters)

Sometimes sure things turn out not to be so sure. Just ask Joko Widodo, who is better known to his fellow Indonesians as “Jokowi.” At the start of 2014 he was expected to win Indonesia’s presidential election in a landslide. Polls showed him with a thirty point lead.  By the time the July 9 vote rolled around, however, the race was a toss-up. Fortunately for Jokowi, things broke his way in the end and he picked up 53 percent of the vote. His opponent did not take the narrow loss well, declaring just hours before the final vote totals were released that he rejected the results as fraudulent and was withdrawing from the election. So rather than starting his presidency with an overwhelming mandate, Jokowi begins it amidst controversy. That’s hardly ideal. But as any seasoned political operative will tell you, a win is a win.

Now Jokowi faces the daunting task of governing Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country. Its 250 million people inhabit more than 6,000 islands that span roughly 3,000 miles from Merauke in the east to Banda Aceh in the west. Indonesians come from more than 300 ethnic groups and they speak 700 distinct languages. That can’t be an easy country to govern under any circumstances—and Indonesia’s circumstances aren’t the best. Economic growth is slowing, inflation and interest rates are rising, the currency is weakening, and investment is falling. Economists expect things to get worse before they get better, largely because Indonesia’s commodity exports are fetching lower prices in world markets. The Indonesian government is running a substantial budget deficit, in good part because of overly generous fuel subsidies that amount to nearly $12 per day per driver in the country. The resulting surge in domestic demand for gasoline is one of the reasons why the former member of OPEC has become a net importer of oil. The cost of fuel subsidies is also keeping Indonesia from making desperately needed investments in infrastructure. Jokowi probably won’t be able to make much progress on any of these problems if he doesn’t do something about the country’s long history of government corruption. And you thought you had a lot of things on your to-do list?

The Basics

Name: Joko Widodo (nickname Jokowi)
Date of Birth:June 21, 1962
Religion: Muslim
Political Party: Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P)
Marital Status: Married to Iriana Joko Widodo
Children: Two sons (Gibran Rakabuming, age 26 and Kaesang Pangarep, age 19) and one daughter (Kahiyang Ayu, age 23)
Alma Mater: Gadjah Mada University (earned a degree in forestry in 1985)
Political Offices Held: Governor of Jakarta (2012- present), Mayor of Surakarta, also known as Solo (2005-2012)
Twitter: @jokowi_do2

What Supporters Say

Jokowi began 2014 as Indonesia’s most popular politician by far. Why? Because Indonesians saw him as a change from politics as usual. He was a relatively fresh political face with no ties to the regime of General Suharto, the man who ruled Indonesia from 1967 until his ouster in 1998. A 33 year-old barber from Tangerang explains:

I voted for Jokowi because he has no connection with the Suharto family…He won’t be influenced by the old regime.

In contrast, most other potential presidential candidates either had ties to Suharto or offered nothing new. As author and Jakarta resident Goenawan Mohamad explains:

Look at the other alternatives. There was a vacuum and Jokowi stepped in. They vote for him because there is a need for a guy like Jokowi in Indonesia.

But Jokowi offers more than a break from the Suharto years. He offers a new approach to political leadership. Bhimanto Suwastoyo, chief editor of the Jakarta Globe online, says:

He’s the opposite of the leaders we have now. He doesn’t fit the mold at all… The mold is: an Indonesian official does what he wants, has no connection with the people and doesn’t consult — he rules. Jokowi is doing the exact opposite. He’s hands on, he asks the public what they want, he approaches them and he’s seen as actually doing something.

In his 2005 campaign to become mayor of Solo (a city of 520,000 people in central Java that is formally known as Surakata) and then in his 2012 campaign to become governor of Jakarta, Jokowi did something unheard of in Indonesia: he went door-to-door and appeared in public places unannounced so he could talk with voters directly about their concerns. Once in office, he instituted more formal events that required city officials to meet with voters. The Jakarta Post describes his events in Solo:

To ensure that the residents would always be heard, Jokowi initiated a number of regular forums and events in which the city leaders could directly communicate with the residents, such as mider projo — literally visiting kampongs — every Friday. During the event, Jokowi and his subordinates rode by bicycle, visiting random kampongs and talking to residents.

Pingkan Irwin, co-founder of a youth voter initiative called Ayo Vote, explains the impact of Jokowi’s style:

He is seen as down to earth, humble, he visits the slums. There has not been anyone like him during our history.

Joko Anwar, a Jakarta based filmmaker, has seen changes since Jokowi took over as governor in 2012. He points to what he calls the “Jokowi effect”:

From his time as governor, we can already see the “Jokowi effect”…Just months after he became governor we could no longer bribe government officials because they were scared they would get “Jokowi-ed”.

Jokowi’s deputy governor in Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (or “Ahok”), knows the public is looking for change:

This is a rebellious generation…People have seen the same type of politician and they are bored. They want someone different.

Jokowi has the support of many businesses and labor unions. A member of the Indonesian Prosperity Trade Union praises Jokowi’s inclusive approach:

Jokowi encourages people to be more civilized, not only people who are close to him but regular folks like parking attendants or becak [pedicab] drivers.

Ferry Sutariamon, a Solo trader, admires Jokowi’s personal touch:

If you ask Jokowi the names of the traders here, he can tell you … his approach is that he goes to the people, he asks what the problems are, and he solves those problems.

For many people, Jokowi has become a celebrity. Lilis Hasanah, age forty-nine, waited for four hours to hear him speak:

I’m glad I can see him even though I didn’t get to shake his hand. He’s honest, close to people, simple.

Overall, Jokowi’s followers think he can make a difference. Jokowi supporter Christine Naomi believes that Jokowi’s leadership will force other Indonesian politicians to act in the best interests of the country:

A good leader will ensure lawmakers are afraid to the do the wrong thing…Indonesia does not need a strong leader or another general, but one that can make a difference.

The news media certainly have taken a liking to Jokowi. The Indonesian magazine Globe Asia named him Man of the Year in January. Rikard Bagun, the chief editor of Kompas, one of Indonesia’s most widely read newspapers, says:

Jokowi is an antithesis to other candidates because he invites the people to discuss issues. There is a collective expectation that we need somebody to change things and they found it in Jokowi. He’s part of our destiny.

The foreign news media likes Jokowi as well. Foreign Policy named him as one of “The Leading Global Thinkers of 2013.” This past March, Fortune ranked him number 37 on its list of “The World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.”

What Critics Say

Jokowi’s popularity declined drastically in the months leading up to the election. Hamdi Muluk, a lecturer at the University of Indonesia in Depok, West Java suggests that part of his problem was that he peaked too early:

Jokowi’s image of being hard working and close to people has reached saturation point.

Jokowi wasn’t helped by his party’s lackluster performance in April legislative elections. The Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) won just 19 percent of the seats in parliament; it was expected to win 30 percent or more. And some influential PDI-P members were displeased that Jokowi was the party’s presidential nominee. They wanted the nod to go to former Indonesian president and current PDI-P chairwoman Megawati Sukarnoputri. She’s the daughter of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president and the man Suharto overthrew in 1967. She stepped aside, however, to allow Jokowi to run. (The fact that she was a losing presidential candidate in 2004 and then again in 2009 probably made the decision easier.) In May, Megawati reminded Jokowi that he owed his nomination to her:

I made you a presidential candidate. But you should remember that you are a party official, with a function of implementing the party’s programs and ideology.

Party in-fighting can ruin even the most promising political campaigns.

What hurt Jokowi the most, however, was the surprise emergence of strong opponent, Prabowo Subianto. Prabowo was in many ways Jokowi’s antithesis: he is married to one of Suharto’s daughters and had extensive ties to the old regime. He rose to the rank of general under his father-in-law, and he was ultimately cashiered from the army for his human-rights abuses.

Prabowo won support by playing the nationalist card and suggesting that Jokowi would not stand up for the country’s interests. Prabowo was also helped by the sudden appearance on social media of rumors that Jokowi is ethnically Chinese and Christian. In the context of Indonesian politics it was a politically damaging charge. Just one percent of Indonesians are ethnic Chinese. Their relations with Indonesia’s dominant ethnic groups have often been difficult, and even deadly. At the same time, Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country; roughly nine-in-ten Indonesians are Muslim.

Jokowi declined to rebut the rumors by pointing out that he is a Javanese Muslim. (The Javanese are Indonesia’s single largest ethnic group, constituting roughly 40 percent of the population.) Left unchecked, the rumors eroded his once dominant lead in the polls. As Muhammad Qodari, executive director of the polling organization Indo Barometer explains it:

Smear campaigning is difficult to detect in surveys, but I have found that people who identify themselves as ‘Muslim voters’ are now equally supporting each candidate, while before the campaign, the majority of them supported Joko Widodo — almost 50 percent to 37 percent. Now it’s equal at 44 percent…I can’t think of any other conclusion except that Muslim voters are being influenced.

My colleague Josh Kurlantzick argues that Jokowi’s eroding support was less the result of rumors about his origins and more the result his failure to respond to Subianto’s negative attacks:

How has Jokowi fallen so far so fast? For one, in a race where it was essential to get somewhat dirty, Jokowi has consistently tried to take the high road–almost never a winning strategy in democratic politics anywhere in the world… The Jokowi campaign initially did not even respond, let alone launch its own negative advertising. By now, when the Jokowi campaign has started really responding, the negative campaigning against Jokowi has made its mark on the population.

Jokowi’s refusal to hit back may also have left some Indonesians wondering if he is tough enough to succeed as president. Prabowo’s supporters often pointed to the general’s firm, militaristic leadership style as a reason to vote for him. Dalim Tunggali, a 50-year-old contractor from Jakarta, explains:

I like Prabowo because he is assertive, disciplined and decisive…A nation is respected by other countries because of its leader. If the leader is assertive, we are going to be respected.

Concerns about Jokowi’s ability to impose his will may have fueled fears that he would not produce results as president. Some Indonesians note that his initiatives in Jakarta have been slow to get off the ground. An office worker from Jakarta says:

Maybe for now it’d be better for [Jokowi] to stay on as governor of Jakarta to demonstrate results first…When he’s proved that he can improve Jakarta, then he could run in the next election.

Burhanuddin Muhtadi, executive director of Indikator Politik Indonesia, cautions against putting all the blame on negative campaigning and debates about toughness. He thinks Jokowi erred in failing to make his platform clear to the public:

Jokowi is rarely seen speaking about his own vision and programs…This means that many middle-class voters, labeled as Jokowi’s support base, are moving closer to Prabowo, who has been intensely covering his programs and is endorsed by PAN and the PKS, the two political parties that maintain middle class support.

One other concern is whether what worked for Jokowi as mayor will work for him as president. While mayor of Solo and governor of Jakarta he liked to make unscheduled visits (or blusukan) to check up on government offices to make sure work was getting done. But what works for a mayor, or even a governor, may not work for a president of a country that spans three thousand miles. As Josh Kurlantzick explains it:

But Jokowi has yet to really recognize that, as president, he could not possibly run the massive country simply by personally traveling around Indonesia to hold government workers accountable… he does not seem to realize that just appointing the right people will not strengthen Indonesian institutions, which is critical in an emerging democratic giant. In addition, he does not seem to realize that he could not, as president, just constantly sack underperforming ministers without making Indonesia seem highly unstable.

Jokowi’s leadership style will now be put to the test.

Stories You’ll Hear More About

Jokowi earned a degree in forestry and had a career as a furniture retailer. As the story goes, in 2004, his colleagues in the Indonesian Furniture Entrepreneurs Association convinced him to enter politics. He successfully ran for mayor of his hometown of Solo in 2005. He turned out to be pretty good at the job. In 2012 he came in third for the World Mayor Prize. (He was edged out by the mayors of Bilbao, Spain and Perth, Australia.)

Although Jokowi didn’t solve Solo’s high poverty and unemployment levels, he did open several new parks and public walkways, attracted international festivals to the city, and rebranded the city as a cultural center and tourist attraction, dubbing it “The Spirit of Java.” One of his biggest success stories was negotiating with street vendors to relocate to newly built market locations. Jokowi was praised for handling the transition smoothly. He was also applauded for improving healthcare, reducing traffic, and raising the standard of living.

As governor of Jakarta, Jokowi has implemented a new smartcard system that allows the poor access to free health care and education. Last year he began to expand the healthcare program to more citizens, though the KJS (Jakarta Health Card) system has had trouble with its rollout. Demand for health services jumped 70 percent in the first three months of the program, straining Jakarta’s healthcare infrastructure. The new healthcare system in Jakarta is widely seen as a pilot project for the rest of the country, so Indonesians will be watching to see how Jokowi implements healthcare on a national scale. Overall, the Jakarta program has mixed reviews.

In Jakarta, Jokowi also raised the minimum wage by 44 percent and restarted work on a new mass transit system (though work has now stalled again). Traffic in Jakarta is awful in good part because of the absence of a good mass transit system.

Jokowi presents himself as a man of the people. He is almost always seen in a “trademark white shirt with sleeves rolled up and cheap shoes.” The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace describes Jokowi as:

a new kind of politician in Indonesia: a humble man of the people, completely untarnished by corruption, with the ability to get things done.

The Economist says that Jokowi “has a penchant for loud rock music.”

Ross Tapsell, a lecturer at the Australian National University, describes Jokowi’s informal way of dealing with the media:

Jokowi has a talent for responding to questions spontaneously, and often jokes with journalists and fans… Many in the media describe his style as the “antithesis” of the way previous Indonesian leaders, including the current president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, behave in public.

Jokowi’s laid-back style and immense popularity before being elected president have led some journalists to dub him Indonesia’s Barack Obama. The Jakarta Post went so far as to call Jokowi’s health program “Jokowi-care.” If Jokowi’s presidency falters, expect the Obama comparisons to proliferate.

In His Own Words

Jokowi brushes off his celebrity, saying that people are:

shocked to see an Indonesian leader out of their office….The people say it’s ‘street democracy’ because I go out to them. I explain my programs. They can also give me ideas about programs.

He explained his unique campaign approach during his first presidential debate:

For me, democracy means listening to the people, and doing what they want me to do… That’s why I visit the villages, traditional markets, meet the people in river banks, farmers and fisherman, because I want to hear what people want.

In the final debate of the presidential campaign, Jokowi described his practical leadership approach:

We have so many ideas, visions and missions, but they were not implemented. We have made so many promises, but there was no realization. Do not just focus on making plans, think of implementation…We can no longer just spout theories. Do not just be bombastic, our shortcoming now is in realization, we already made so many plans. The important thing is to implement [the plans and programs].

Jokowi believes his personal approach is the root of his success. He told the Jakarta Post that he was able to persuade street vendors in Solo to move because:

there was a process that we went through. We approached them, prepared a concept and organised the strategy. We involved the locals, talked to the street vendors. We aimed to demonstrate the process to the public.

Jokowi takes pride in his media savvy:

I learnt in Solo how to manage the media and to differentiate from other candidates… We go to the problem locations. We go to the poor people, to the riverbank for example, and this is sexy for the media. If you interview in the office or shoot television footage in the office it is not sexy.

In response to criticism that he didn’t have a clear campaign platform, Jokowi began in May to promote a “mental revolution” changing the mindset of the Indonesian people as a way to start producing real change. Furthermore, by improving in areas like health and education, Jokowi hopes to build a foundation to make people more productive and competitive in the economy. Jokowi believes education is crucial to economic development:

The economic development in my opinion is first, to build the human resource, through education…What kind of education? We should do mental revolution.

In a meeting with business leaders in June, Jokowi explained the importance of education:

[Education] will certainly trigger the improvement of our economy. If Indonesians maintain good character and discipline, they will find productivity improves. This [high level of] productivity will later increase our competitiveness [as a nation].

The mental revolution also calls for more accountability and less corruption in government:

We amended the Constitution, we have established independent commissions…we have regional autonomy and we have also modified many of our national and regional laws. We also have held elections that are periodically conducted at the national and regional level. All of these are aimed at improving the management of this democratic and accountable country. However, all efforts have been in vain because they are not carried out in parallel with reform in the populace’s mind-set. Some traditions or cultures that flourished during the repressive era of the New Order still remain, such as corruption, intolerance of differences, greed, selfishness, the tendency to use force to settle matters, law violations and opportunism.

Jokowi stresses that investment should not come at the expense of equality:

Yes, we need investments—be it domestic or foreign investment. It will spur job creation in a big way and fuel economic growth. But it is not just about economic growth. Equitable growth is also important.

Jokowi has criticized the negative campaigning that caused his popularity to plummet:

It certainly made the people anxious. Misinforming the people, slander, provocations and lots of information that is not true. I believe this is not healthy for this country and for democracy.

Jokowi also said:

I ask the public not to get swayed by libel committed against me, because none of it is true. People in East Java burned all the tabloids because they already knew the truth and they refused to be bothered.

Since the voting ended, Jokowi has reaffirmed his promise to remain a man of the people:

To win means to serve the people…So all our people must unite for a better Indonesia.

He is optimistic about the future:

Today a new history was created. This is a new chapter for Indonesia…This victory, based on quick-count results, is not the victory of Jokowi and Jusuf Kalla … it is the victory of all Indonesians.

Whether Jokowi will write a chapter that most Indonesians will enjoy remains to be seen.

Foreign Policy Views

Jokowi gained little foreign policy experience in his stints as mayor of Solo and governor of Jakarta. As Josh Kurlantzick notes, his comments at the presidential debates didn’t do much to reassure Indonesians worried that he is not ready for the foreign policy challenges facing Indonesia:

During the debate, Jokowi tried to project confidence that he actually has a better grasp on foreign affairs than people thought, but he said little about issues critical to Indonesian policy such as ASEAN, the role of Indonesia in ASEAN, Indonesia’s relationship with China and the United States, Indonesia’s views on disputed areas of the South China Sea, and other important topics. Instead, Jokowi talked extensively about how Indonesia must do more to protect the rights of Indonesians who migrate to other countries for work, a reasonable topic given the large number of Indonesians who work in Malaysia, Singapore, and the Gulf kingdoms, where many have allegedly been mistreated….Jokowi also talked generally about the importance of diplomacy in Indonesia’s regional relationships, but seemed to have little idea which of these relationships were most important, or how, more specifically, he might handle the country’s currently contentious relationships with Australia and China, two very important countries to Jakarta.

Jokowi’s thin grasp on foreign policy could be a problem if, as Vikram Nehru and Nadia Bulkin argue, events overseas are becoming increasingly important for Indonesia:

The rest of Southeast Asia will look to Indonesia for leadership and guidance in adjusting to accommodate these changes in the world order. The country’s size, democratic institutions, and economic performance have given it considerable heft in regional and world affairs. As a result, Indonesia’s strategic choices in the region today will extend far beyond its borders and have ramifications that will echo for generations to come.

Jokowi’s official foreign policy platform is short, both on words and details. As Awidya Santikajaya explains, it emphasizes Indonesia’s interests in the region:

Jokowi outlines a well-structured foreign policy vision in around 500 words. He details four foreign policy priorities: (1) promoting the “archipelagic state” concept as the Indonesia’s main foreign policy identity, which emphasizes the need for solving its territorial dispute by peaceful means; (2) carrying out “middlepowermanship” through active participation in various international forums; (3) expanding the regionalism project by strengthening the Indo-Pacific regional architecture; and (4) widening the public outreach on foreign policymaking.

Indonesia accounts for 42 percent of the population of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), but hasn’t taken on a leadership role in the organization.

A neighboring country that will be following Jokowi’s foreign policy decisions closely is Australia. The two countries have had prickly relations in recent years. Ross Taylor, president of the Indonesia Institute, thinks that bilateral relations could improve:

Currently in Australia, we have a situation where the Indonesian ambassador is in his thirteenth week back in Jakarta, after being recalled over the spying and boat-people issue…The election of a new president, which would hopefully be Jokowi, could represent a new start for bilateral relations between Indonesia and Australia. This will probably provide a circuit breaker for the diplomatic stand-off…Jokowi’s considered, balanced and focused approach to what will be an enormous challenge, will provide the best chance for relations between Australia and Indonesia to be stabilised and rebuilt early in his presidency… There is enormous opportunity for Australia and Indonesia to partner with each other in so many areas. We are culturally different, but we also have many things in common.

Greg Fealy of the Australian National University disagrees. He thinks that relations between Indonesia and Australia are likely to remain strained:

I think it’s going to require the Australian Government to rethink its approach to Indonesia and it’s going to have to factor in the likelihood that a future Indonesian government is far less likely to forgive Australia…Neither of the two candidates in the current presidential election in Indonesia are as statesman-like and both of them have a far more overtly nationalist agenda and so that is likely to spell trouble if Australia is perceived as acting unilaterally or being heedless of Indonesia’s desires… [Joko Widodo] is a more stable person in his personality and he’s more pragmatic and I think more measured in his approach to difficult policy issues.

Kevin Lees argues that Jokowi’s victory has a lot of foreign capitals and foreign investors breathing a sigh of relief:

Jokowi’s apparent victory will be welcomed in Washington, Brussels and Canberra because it gives Indonesia a modern leader whose principles are firmly rooted in Indonesian democracy, not Suharto-era authoritarianism. It will also be welcomed among investors in New York, London, Shanghai and Jakarta, who feared that his rival Prabowo’s protectionist and nationalist rhetoric could endanger foreign capital, Indonesia’s rule of law and the steady political, legal and economic gains of the past decade under outgoing president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Check back in two years to see if Washington, Brussels, and Canberra are still pleased to see Jokowi as president.

Outlook for Relations with Washington

Washington would love closer relations with Jakarta. That is partly because of its desire to offset China’s growing influence in Southeast Asia. But it’s also because Indonesia is an increasingly important economy—and a democracy to boot. By some estimates, its economy will surpass Germany’s by 2030. ASEAN countries are already a fast-growing trade partner of the United States. Meanwhile, bilateral trade between the United States and Indonesia exceeded $27 billion in 2013.

But closer U.S.-Indonesia security ties probably aren’t in the offing. Indonesia is one of the founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement, so ambivalence about Washington is part of its diplomatic DNA. Jakarta is understandably reluctant to be drawn into any relationship that could be depicted as anti-Chinese. Indonesia has largely remained silent on one of Southeast Asia’s biggest issues, conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea. Until March, Indonesia didn’t have major territorial disputes with China (though it has disputes with plenty of other countries). It has, however, sought to play a mediation role in the region.

Closer economic relations may not be in the offing either. Indonesia is not currently part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the twelve-country effort to create a free trade bloc in the Pacific. It doesn’t look as if Jokowi has any plans to change that.

The United States and Indonesia will continue to have a relationship through ASEAN. U.S- ASEAN security and defense cooperation is becoming increasingly important. Indonesia’s defense budget is growing, but currently stands at only 1 percent of GDP.

One specific thorn in U.S.-Indonesian relations is spying. Back in February Edward Snowden released documents showing that the Australian Signals Directorate spied on the American law firm that represents Indonesia in a trade dispute with the United States over clove cigarettes and shrimp. Jakarta responded to the news by telling the United States and Australia to “clean up their mess.” The February revelation added to tensions created by documents released last November detailing the assistance that the Australian embassy in Jakarta gave to U.S. spying programs. In response to those accusations, Indonesia’s foreign minister said:

Countries may have capacities, technical capacities, to intercept and to carry out the activity that’s been reported, and information may have been gathered…But the cost — in terms of trust, in terms of the damage — that may be resulting, is something that we must all reflect on.

One piece of good news in U.S.-Indonesians relations is that Indonesians have grown more favorable to the United States over the past decade. According to the Pew Research Center, just 38 percent of Indonesians had a favorable view of the United States in 2005. Nine years later, 59 percent did. Public opinion matters a lot in a democracy. Indonesia is the world’s third most populous democracy, behind India and the United States.

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