This blog post was authored by Timothy F. Higgins, a graduate of the University of St. Andrews with an MA in political philosophy.
The recent presidential victory of Joko Widodo (popularly known as “Jokowi”) has the potential to be a watershed moment in Southeast Asian politics. For the first time in Indonesia’s (albeit short) history as an independent nation, control of its government will pass from one democratically elected leader to another in relative peace.
This is encouraging for two reasons. First, the electorate has not been seduced by the burly militarist narrative of rival candidate Probowo Subianto. In a region that sits in the shadow of an increasingly aggressive China, it would be tempting to opt for Subianto, the nationalist strong-man, over Jokowi, the pragmatic governor of Indonesia’s economic hub, Jakarta.
Second, it shows that the framework exists in Indonesia for a politician to rise through the ranks based on merit as a public servant rather than pedigree and political connections. Subianto is the optimal characterization of Indonesia’s political elite: he made his career leading the special forces units that carried out brutal anti-Suharto crackdowns, and later marrying the then-president’s daughter. By contrast, Jokowi grew up in the slums of Surakarta (also known as “Solo”) before building and running his own furniture business, and ultimately winning the race for mayor of his hometown.
Jokowi owes much of his political success to the decentralized structure of Indonesia’s democracy. Born partly out of necessity—Indonesia is sprawled across more than 17,000 islands—and partly in reaction to a history of Jakarta-based dictatorships, this decentralization has given local governors greater autonomy, and thus the opportunity to excel. This is exactly what Jokowi did when he was in charge of his home-city of Solo, and later in Jakarta, where he made a point of tackling generally populist issues. Advocating improved quality of life for the average Jakartan, he oversaw a boost in healthcare and education spending, and initiated construction on long-defunct public transit systems. In a pointed effort to make Jakarta’s bureaucracy more transparent, he published records of government hirings complete with test scores and salaries.
But now that Jokowi sits at the head of the government apparatus, he may find this decentralization to be his biggest challenge. If every politician in Indonesia shared his scruples, the country would be a fairer and more efficient place. Unfortunately, graft and government cronyism are deeply embedded in politics across the archipelago. Corruption is like a cancer; it is easier to address when contained in one area. Cutting these practices and practitioners out of the political process will be a massive challenge across Indonesia’s sprawling two million square kilometers, particularly since Jokowi cannot count on much cooperation from the police or the military, given his recent presidential adversary.
Apart from the traditional methods of fines, firings, or imprisonments, the strongest deterrent against corruption may be the example set by Jokowi himself. The fact that a public servant can win Indonesia’s highest office through honest, results-driven governance provides encouragement to politicians with good intentions, but who are uncertain about whether sticking to the straight and narrow is worth it. This message is spreading more easily, too: internet users have more than double in the last four years, increasing from 6.9 percent in 2009 to 15.8 in 2013 (Indonesia still lags well behind the global average, which was at 38.1 percent last year).
Ultimately, it is unrealistic to expect Jokowi to excise government corruption and inefficiencies across Indonesia in only five years. The country is too vast, too disjointed, and too populous to make that kind of fundamental change in such a short period of time. But Jokowi’s ability to win the presidential election is, in itself, a victory over corruption, and hopefully his example will serve as a guide and inspiration to others looking to emulate his accomplishment.