A frontrunner emerges in Indonesia
By Gary LaMoshi
DENPASAR - Next year's Indonesian presidential election could follow the script written by the most famous politician who ever lived in Jakarta. This political superstar defied conventional wisdom that said the frontrunner, a senior female from a president's immediate family, was entitled to a clear path to the presidency. Naysayers also urged him to finish the job he had been elected to do and wait his turn a few years down the road.
But Barack Obama, who spent his grade school years in Indonesia's capital city, ignored party elders and mainstream pundits who urged him to complete his term as a US senator and stand aside for Hillary Clinton, the wife of former US chief
executive Bill Clinton. A fresh personality with natural charisma, Obama tapped into a national hunger for change from dysfunctional government that seemed to place the public interest at the bottom of its priority list. Obama used an early groundswell of support to steamroll to his party's nomination over Clinton and garner hugely favorable media coverage, catapulting him to the presidency.
In Indonesia, Joko Widodo is now the one in waiting. Popularly known as Jokowi, Widodo has a higher profile and more experience than Obama had a year ahead of his election, and, unlike Obama, he is leading polls even before declaring his candidacy for the mid-2014 vote. Jokowi made a big splash as the mayor of Surakarta, also known as Solo, his hometown in Central Java.
Elected in 2005 with a background in business rather than politics, Jokowi brought a new approach to the job. Unlike most Indonesian office holders, he did not define public service as an opportunity to enrich himself and his cronies. Instead, Jokowi engaged the public and bureaucracy in unannounced visits, dubbed "inspection tours", of facilities such as traditional markets as part of an emphasis on transparency in government.
With support from local businesses, his administration revitalized Solo's downtown areas that had been devastated by anti-Chinese riots in 1998. He also took the lead in promoting Solo, considered a bastion of Javanese culture and the island's batik capital but also notorious in recent years as a hotbed of Islamic militancy, as a tourist attraction by preserving heritage sites and initiating an annual World Music Festival.
Jokowi easily won re-election as mayor under the banner of the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle, known by its Indonesian acronym as PDI-P. Mid-way through his second term, the party tapped Jokowi to run for governor of Jakarta, perhaps Southeast Asia's most dysfunctional capital. The sprawling metropolis has been plagued for decades by gridlock - not coincidentally, it is the largest Asian capital without an urban rail transport system - unregulated growth, floods and rampant poverty.
The election campaign against incumbent Fauzi Bowo was marked by slurs against Jokowi's ethnic Chinese running mate Basuki Tjahaja Purnama. Jokowi's ticket prevailed and he took office last October, bringing the same open style and problem-solving approach to Jakarta. Governing the capital put him more squarely on the national stage and talk of Jokowi running for president emerged within weeks of his election.
Barriers to entry
For Jokowi, the woman in his way to the top is Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Sukarno, Indonesia's first president and independence hero, and president herself for three years beginning in 2001. Megawati is PDI-P's party chair and its revolutionary heroine, having been thrust into the forefront of opposition to the authoritarian Suharto regime by its ham-handed attempt to remove her as the head of an authorized opposition party.
The PDI-P presidential nomination is Megawati's for the taking to make a third run for the presidency, while Jokowi has professed no interest in leaving his Jakarta governor job, but in recent weeks there have been signs of movement on both sides. In the Javanese tradition of shadow puppetry, Megawati hinted through her daughter, Puan Maharani, herself a PDI-P executive, that she could stand aside to promote "regeneration" within the party.
A few days later, Jokowi was spotted having lunch with Megawati and other PDI-P national leaders. Afterward, Jokowi said they talked about "chicken" since it was lunch time (and not yet the fasting month of Ramadan), a remark consistent with his practice of not discussing presidential politics. That artifice cracked in late June when Jokowi, while reiterating that he defers to the party chair regarding PDI-P's presidential nominee, acknowledged he was the frontrunner in numerous recent opinion polls. "It reflects the will of the people," Jokowi told reporters.
Jokowi's popularity is a product of his track record and his refreshingly different approach to governance. It is also testimony to the utter bankruptcy of Indonesia's major political parties and their proposed presidential hopefuls. Even 15 years after Suharto's scorched earth policy towards potential political rivals, no genuinely popular figure has emerged from national politics.
Aside from Jokowi, the major candidates are all warmed-over figures from the Suharto era. The frontrunner in a race without Jokowi remains the ousted president's former son-in-law, Prabowo Subianto, who was implicated in the disappearances of opposition figures during the Suharto regime as well as trying to stage a coup in its waning days in 1998. Suharto's last military chief, Wiranto, made his shaky credentials as a democrat and a reformer by preventing that coup, probably because his clique of generals more senior to Prabowo thought Suharto would hand power to them.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, 2004's supposed breath of fresh air, was a Suharto-era general and member of the cabinets of Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati. His Democratic Party, purpose-built for his presidential run, became a magnet for businesspeople aiming to get rich. It won the biggest block in parliament in 2009 but Yudhoyono's penchant for inclusion and equivocation has made party corruption the legacy of his second term after posing as a graft-busting reformer in his first term.
The candidate for Suharto's ruling party, Golkar, is its chairman Aburizal Bakrie, a second-generation tycoon who has been officially running for a year and yet consistently polls single-digit support. He is best known for his energy company's role in a drilling accident that started a mud flow in East Java expected to continue for decades and which has already displaced thousands of people. Then coordinating minister for people's welfare, Bakrie watched, if not helped, as the company did its best to avoid liability for the incident.
Then there is PDI-P leader Megawati. She has been thwarted in the past three presidential contests, including once by congress, which ignored her party's top finish in the legislative voting. Legislators placated her with the vice presidency under Abdurrahman Wahid but later impeached Wahid and gave her the presidency for three years from 2001-2004. As chief executive she beat a retreat from Wahid's reform efforts and corruption flourished. Yudhoyono beat her in the nation's first direct presidential election in 2004 and again in 2009.
Platitudes over policies
Candidates and parties in Indonesia spout anodyne platitudes rather than stand for concrete policies. Parties function as either personal vehicles for leaders and acolytes far more concerned with winning office than how they will exercise power beyond trying to make back the money they spent to get there.
In this political climate it is little wonder that people are clamoring for Jokowi. Former finance minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati hoped to ride this wave of dissatisfaction to the presidency. But since resigning her post rather than staying and fighting trumped up charges in connection with the Bank Century bailout, she has been working at the World Bank in Washington DC, which has proven a less than ideal staging ground for her campaign.
Jokowi may not be able to change Indonesia's political culture but he has shown a willingness to stand his ground and challenge the corrupt old guard. If elected, there is no guarantee that he will be able to make the national government work better but at the very least the electorate can be confident he would genuinely try. That alone could begin to lift Indonesia out of its political mire.
If Megawati steps aside for Jokowi as the PDI-P candidate, there is a school of punditry that suggests Obama's story would not be the most applicable foreign leadership example. Instead, they mention Goh Chok Tong, the former premier of Singapore who succeeded Lee Kuan Yew and preceded Lee's son, current prime minister Lee Hsien Loon. Some cynics in Singapore refer to their three prime ministers as "the father, the son and the holy Goh", and Megawati may hope for a similar transition plan for daughter Puan Maharani.
The risk for Megawati is that Jokowi may just prove to be a transformative figure in Indonesian politics and thus a tough act to follow. Of course, many people thought the same thing about Obama.
Longtime editor of award-winning investor rights advocate eRaider.com, Gary LaMoshi has written for Slate and Salon.com, and works an adviser to Writing Camp (www.writingcamp.net). He first visited Indonesia in 1994 and has been watching ever since.
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