The audacity of Jokowi
8 Mar 2013|
Jokowi, amongst the people

It’s March 2013, and looking ahead to September 2014—when Indonesia’s new president should be elected—it’s too early to speculate on the result. In fact, we’re not even sure who’ll line up for the race. But last week, ANU’s Marcus Mietzner made a bold prediction; that not only would Jakarta’s governor, Joko Widodo (aka Jokowi) run in the presidential election, but he’d win. Mietzner’s case was compelling, and if Australia has begun to give a Prabowo presidency some thought, it’s worth reflecting on what ‘President Jokowi’ might mean for Australia.

To sum up Mietzner’s presentation, Jokowi will sail to victory with a popularity (buoyed by intense media attention and pop culture appeal) and the hope of the people that no other political figure in Indonesia’s recent history has been ever able to muster. Jokowi hails from a modest background and self-made wealth as a furniture entrepreneur, which has given him a down-to-earth quality and sensitivity to the issues of Jakarta’s poorer residents. For those Indonesians fatigued with the usual suspects in elections, Jokowi makes an unconventional and therefore appealing candidate. He signals the potential for a new chapter in clean politics and accountability—a perspective that opinion polls are now beginning to show. According to one survey, he’s secured 21.2% of votes and leads the race.

But there are still hurdles. The man himself has brushed aside questions of whether he’ll run, shrewdly reminding enquirers that he’s elbow-deep in the city’s issues. And while Mietzner outlined the logical political gains for a nomination by the Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-P), Megawati Sukarnoputri’s party, ‘Ibu Mega’ could, on a whim, save the ticket for herself and take a third run for the top job. Megawati’s husband and PDI-P chief patron, Taufiq Kiemas, has also urged his own party to leave Jokowi out of the race.

But let’s, for a moment, assume the stars align, and Jokowi seizes his chance to ride the wave of popular support all the way to the Presidential palace. That would mean good things for Australia–Indonesia relations. So far, he’s shown a pragmatic approach to resolving issues, first as the mayor of Solo and now the governor of Jakarta. Known for his collaborative and consultative approach, he’s also keen to follow up regularly on decisions and keep the public service running efficiently, with the interests of citizens at the forefront. Last year, he introduced health care for Jakarta’s poor—something unthinkable before his time.

As mayor of Solo, Jokowi avoided a violent confrontation in 2005 with street vendors when plans were announced to remove them from Banjarsari Park. He reached out to their representatives to encourage dialogue. Both sides reached an agreement, with Jokowi offering incentives that provided for vendors’ needs including a new relocation site, public transport, education and training, tax breaks and loans.

Jokowi’s shown he can deftly balance the interests of big business and the little guy, so he comes with the right tools to navigate nationalist pressures in areas like trade—where tensions over cattle trade might remain. Canberra would also be looking to Jokowi with a hopeful eye for pragmatism and dialogue on Papua; although this might be a marginal issue for president responsible for a vast archipelago.

On military matters, Jokowi doesn’t have a long-standing relationship with TNI. But Mietzner believes the generals would fall into line provided Jokowi remains a darling of the people and stays out of their internal processes. It’s less clear how he’d perform on thornier issues like democratic reform or national-level corruption.

On the PR front, part of Jokowi’s appeal is that he’s seen as a civilian reformer, which might present a good opportunity to dispel Australian misperceptions of an ’authoritarian Indonesia’. After eight years of President SBY and 14 years of democratic transition, if the Lowy Institute’s 2011 poll (PDF) is to be believed, there’s still an image problem. It’s not incumbent on Jokowi to fix this, of course, but he might be part of the solution.

But this raises more questions for Australia: if Jokowi’s the ’it’ guy at home, would he be the ’it’ guy on the world stage? How comfortable would Australia be with a popular figure—Indonesia’s equivalent of Barack Obama—next door?

So far, there’ve been no clear indications from Jokowi what his foreign policy would be. And as I wrote earlier in the week, there are still many challenges that could fetter Indonesia’s ascent. As a ‘man of the people’, he could continue therefore to be focussed on domestic issues. Jokowi might even delve into foreign policy where it concerns the treatment of Indonesian workers overseas. Governor of Jakarta is one thing, but being Indonesia’s President is something else entirely. But even as a governor, there are signs of international awareness: he’s held his own bilateral meetings with a number of ambassadors. And what’s more, the international media have seized upon Jokowi’s fame. His political machinery would figure out how to further translate his domestic popularity to an international stage.

This is just one possible scenario of many, and each candidate will come with their own pros and cons. Eighteen months is a long time in politics, but watch Jokowi, no matter what he and others say about his candidacy in the meantime.

For now, reflecting on Jokowi’s immense popularity, pop culture appeal and his can-do attitude, it’s hard to keep the parallels with Obama at bay. Although these parallels are best understated, I’m reminded of an Aeon magazine article which explored the idea of Obama—with his cool and halus composure—as the US’ first ‘Javanese president’. Turning that idea on its head for a moment, as a rockstar candidate that signals an historic, new era in his country’s politics, could Jokowi be Indonesia’s first ‘Obama-esque’ president? Marcus Mietzner’s answer would be: yes, he can.

Natalie Sambhi is an analyst at ASPI and editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of