Indonesia’s White Knight stumbles at the first fence

April 9, 2014

For months the political life of Indonesia has been throbbing with the expectation that the hugely popular mayor of Jakarta, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, was all set to become the country’s saviour and President in July elections.

But in the critical preliminary parliamentary elections today, enough people appear to have had second thoughts about the suitability of the charismatic, but largely untried and tested Jokowi, as he is universally known, for the top job. Jokowi’s Indonesian Party of Struggle (PDI-P) was expected to get at least 25 per cent of the vote in the election for the 560-seat House of Representatives, and perhaps as much as 35 per cent. But with 80 per cent of the vote counted the PDI-P fell well short of those targets with only 19 per cent of the vote.

This failure has very real implications. Under the Indonesian constitution a party must win 25 per cent of the votes for parliament or 20 per cent of the parliamentary seats in order to be able to nominate a candidate for the presidency on its own.

With this result, it looks as though PDI-P will have to form alliances with minor parties in order to get Jokowi, 52, on the July ballot. Indonesia’s fragmented political landscape and the constant need for usually fractious coalition governments has been the country’s bane since the advent of democracy 16 years ago.

Indonesia is not a naturally homogeneous country. It is the world’s most populous Muslim country of nearly 250 million people, but made up of 300 distinct ethnic groups, speaking 742 languages and living on 6,000 of the archipelago’s 17,508 islands.

Outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who must retire this year after serving two terms, came to office amid high hopes that his Democratic Party government would fulfill its pledges to root out Indonesia’s endemic corruption and to get the economy functioning to its potential. This hasn’t happened, to a significant degree because Yudhoyono has been hobbled by the need to form coalitions. His current government includes ministers from six of the nine parliamentary parties.

Despite the less than stellar showing of PDI-P in the parliamentary elections, Jokowi remains by far the most popular figure among the potential candidates for President. Polls consistently show him with the support of 40 per cent of voters, well ahead of his rivals businessman Aburizal Bakrie of the Golkar party, and Prabowo Subianto, the son-in-law of former dictator President Suharto and head of the Great Indonesia Movement. Jokowi might not win an outright majority on the first ballot on July 9, but a win on the second ballot in September is almost assured.

This popularity is as much an expression of frustrated hopes and expectations among the voters as it is confidence in Jokowi’s abilities. He is benefiting from not coming from any of the families embedded in the country’s political life – usually to their own profit – and from having a record so short it has hardly had time to include significant failures or disappointments.

Jokowi started his adult life running a furniture manufacturing company before successfully seeking election as mayor of Surakarta, usually known in Indonesia as Solo, in 2005. He swiftly established a reputation as a political leader who worked hard, listened to his electorate and got things done.

This combination of talents is so unusual among the country’s political class that it brought Jokowi to national attention. As a result, in 2012 he was nominated by PDI-P to run as its candidate for mayor of the capital, Jakarta.

Though he’s been in office in Jakarta less than two years, Jokowi has established a reputation for honesty and tackling the city’s problems that his predecessors avoided. His administration has taken firm steps to try to deal with Jakarta’s annual problem of flooding, housing shortages and slums, lack of transport and high food prices.

Jokowi is a highly visible mayor and has gained a lot of popular support by regularly visiting districts of Jakarta and listening to local people as they list their problems. He has also demanded unprecedented discipline from civil servants, who have in the past taken a lackadaisical approach to opening their offices to the public or even turning up for work. Now city offices open on time and officials are there to deal with public needs.

Jokowi’s style may be attractive, but there is evidence his nose for the outcome of his actions is not so keen.

Soon after taking over as mayor of Jakarta he introduced a universal health care program for the city’s residents. As might have been expected, the demands for health services nearly doubled within a few months, but Jokowi’s administration was caught flat-footed. Hospitals and clinics were unable to keep up with the floods of would-be patients and budgets swiftly became meaningless.

The PDI-P and Jokowi have not yet produced a clear policy platform, but his record in Solo and Jakarta suggest that as President he would give priority to health, education, and slum clearance and re-housing programs. He would probably also have little choice but to continue the main strands of the economic nationalism policies pursued by Yudhoyono, including trying to force international mining and other resources companies to maximize the amount of processing they do in Indonesia.

It will be astonishing, though, if he is able to make a breakthrough on curbing corruption. For example, it is estimated that the candidates for today’s parliamentary election will have spent from $100,000 to a million dollars on their campaigns. Rules on political contributions are lax to non-existent, so much of this money will have come from donors who will expect to benefit from the patronage of the successful candidates.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014


SPREAD THE WORD: To tell others about this column, please  “share” our Frontlines notices.

Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers who buy a subscription or a $1 site day pass. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from non-journalism foundations or causes. Sign up here for email notices of new work with the subscribe form on Frontlines, where we also post small stories.