Indonesia, the world’s third largest democracy, held a historic election this year. On June 9th, the largely Muslim nation of over 250 million people went to the polls to elect the country’s next president. The two candidates for the election were Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto. After a close contest, Widodo won the election with 53% of the vote.
Joko Widodo, widely known as “Jokowi”, represents a hopeful change in the direction of Indonesian politics. Jokowi grew up poor in Java, the son of a wood-seller. He began his start in politics as mayor of the city of Surakarta in central Java. Widodo’s experience with poverty during his childhood has heavily influenced his style of political governance. As mayor of Surakarta and later as governor of Jakarta, Widodo quickly established a reputation for his commitment to green space and his involvement in the community. In Surakarta, Widodo revitalized traditional markets and urban parks. He also successfully rebranded Surakarta as a global cultural city. In 2006, Surakarta joined the UNESCO Organization of World Heritage Cities. While mayor, Widodo also encouraged the development of tourist attractions around Surakarta and cancelled plans for the demolition of the Fort Vastenburg Complex, a fortress from the Dutch colonial era that has since been transformed into a cultural venue including hosting the World Music Festival in 2008.
After seven years as mayor of Surakarta that had already propelled Joko Widodo into the national and international spotlight, he successfully ran for governor of Jakarta in 2012. Widodo continued his policies promoting transparency among the government and encouraging development during his short tenure as governor before his presidential campaign. He inaugurated construction of the Jakarta mass rapid transit system in 2013 after it had been delayed for several years. He also instituted universal healthcare in Jakarta and implemented an educational assistance program to help poorer children purchase book and uniforms. Mr. Widodo also took a novel approach to his governance and carried out the practice of “blusukan”, or performing unannounced visits to impoverished areas. Widodo would visit these neighborhoods in informal clothes and talk to people about daily issues including food and housing prices. His direct engagement with the people of Jakarta made Jokowi even more popular among Indonesians.
In the election this year, Joko Widodo ran largely as a candidate against the corruption that has been endemic in Indonesia since Sukarno and Suharto’s regimes. His opponent, Prabowo Subianto, was a former general under Suharto. After a bitter campaign, Subianto withdrew hours before the election results were released on July 22 alleging fraud. As president-elect, Joko Widodo will be the first president of Indonesia not associated with the country’s political or military elite. Even that will be a welcome change to the country, as an example that one can rise to success and power despite being born poor.
However, Joko Widodo may have trouble getting any of his proposed policies to increase the transparency of the government and crack down on corruption passed. His coalition, led by the Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-P), only has a 37% minority in the Indonesian parliament after the April legislative elections. Additionally, Joko Widodo may face opposition even from his own party as much of the parliament is still dominated by the entrenched elite. The PDI-P is led in the Indonesian parliament by Puan Maharani, daughter of former president Megawati Sukarnoputri and granddaughter of Indonesia’s founding president Sukarno. Megawati herself is still the leader of the PDI-P and was seeking the candidacy for the presidency that she held from 2001 to 2004 but stepped aside to give Jokowi the candidacy when support for her was clearly not enough. Naturally, Jokowi and Puan both deny that there is any infighting among the party, but this could be another stumbling block toward getting any true reform policies on Jokowi’s agenda passed.
Despite potential roadblocks, Joko Widodo’s election to the presidency still represents a changing face in Indonesian politics. The possibility that Southeast Asia’s largest economy could become more transparent and make the leap in development to bring most of its people out of poverty would be a significant change to the geopolitics of that region of the world. And if there is anyone who could lead the way on this movement, there is likely no better person to do so than Jokowi.