Many Indonesians are hoping that Joko Widodo will spearhead a new era of clean politics once the current president wraps up his maximum second term in office
By Sacha Passi
During a time when Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono should be shifting his focus to nominating his replacement, the 64-year-old is instead embattled by a string of corruption scandals linked to the ruling Democratic Party of Indonesia (PDI). Recently, his son, Edhie Baskoro Yudhoyono, also the PDI’s secretary general, was flagged in a report by Indonesia Corruption Watch as one of 36 lawmakers accused of working against anti-graft efforts to end Indonesia’s endemic corruption.
Meanwhile, ahead of next year’s national elections, Megawati Sukarnoputri, a former president of Indonesia and leader of the opposition Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), is slowly improving the calibre of the people in her party in the hope of shaping a ‘new generation’ of Indonesian politicians.
Leading the way is 52-year-old former businessman Joko Widodo, also known as Jokowi. With his penchant for plaid shirts, rolled up sleeves and simple speeches, the governor of Jakarta is turning traditional politics on its head.
“Megawati is clearly paying close attention to his political rise, and trying to remodel and rebrand her party to look like Jokowi… He has preserved his image as an honest and down-to-earth man of the people and a challenger to the big business and dynastic politicians,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. “But it is important to remember that other politicians, including Prabowo Subianto [a former special forces commander], are courting him too.”
Until recently, the frontrunner in Indonesia’s presidential polls was Prabowo, Megawati’s vice-presidential running mate in the last election and a man closely tied to the Suharto dynasty. A candidate with strong decision-making skills, he also has a severely tarnished human rights record that would threaten Indonesia’s ability to build on international relations established by Yudhoyono.
Widely seen as humble, untainted and genuine, Widodo has managed to increase his popularity since being elected as governor in September 2012. “These characteristics can be seen as the antithesis of what ‘politics’ is in Indonesia,” said Sandra Hamid, an expert in Indonesian governance and politics for the Asia Foundation. “Clearly there is a yearning to bring simplicity and humility back to politics, and he seems to symbolise that yearning.”
For many, Widodo represents an outsider. He is not from Jakarta, but the central Javanese city of Solo, where he served as mayor of Surakarta for seven years. Securing the position of governor was a feat in itself said Colin Brown, a political expert at Parahyangan University in Indonesia, who pointed out that, in local elections, “being local had become almost a requirement for successful candidature”.
In less than a year, Widodo has pushed on with plans to revitalise Jakarta’s stalled monorail system and improve flood mitigation measures. Perhaps even more impressively, he has bucked the trend by climbing the political ladder without using connections to the army, civil service, Muslim establishment or dynastic ties.
If Megawati doesn’t nominate herself to run in next July’s national election, Widodo is proving a likely contender for the PDIP’s presidential nomination. Whether he will accept the challenge is one question yet to be answered; whether Indonesia is truly ready for a new style of governance is another.
“For all his attractiveness, Jokowi is also a politician: a new style one perhaps, but still a man who needs public support to get into, and stay in, his job. We should not romanticise him,” said Brown. “He is a good example of the type of politician Indonesia desperately needs. But the political system puts huge demands on its players. Very few politicians manage to avoid making compromises to get into and stay in office. Perhaps Jokowi will be the exception.”
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