Joko Widodo

Beset by multiple corruption scandals, the Democratic Party of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is yet to designate a candidate to contest next year’s election. In the meantime, change is in the air. Since taking office in October, Jakarta’s unassuming governor, Joko Widodo, has turned the country’s political establishment on its head. Touted as ‘Indonesia’s Obama’ for his consensus-based approach, broad popular appeal and outsider status, Widodo is increasingly being talked about as a contender for the top job in a nation on the rise.

With simple speeches delivered in a country drawl, untucked white shirts, rolled up sleeves and black Airwalk sneakers, Joko Widodo makes an unlikely politician. But the former furniture businessman turned mayor has used his common touch to win the leadership of Indonesia’s most important city, Jakarta, and the cult formed around him has seen him elevated into a national phenomenon. In this cluttered, creaking metropolis – one of the world’s largest – Widodo, affectionately known as ‘Jokowi,’ has captured the trust and support of millions. His visits to Jakarta’s raucous neighborhoods elicit cheers from men and women who gaze upon him star struck. At schools, students whoop when he enters a room, their teachers enraptured by his unconventional charisma. Just six months after assuming office, Widodo has surprised seasoned political analysts by becoming a household name.

“He is now a national figure,” says Marcus Mietzner, a political scientist at the Australian National University in Canberra. “He has now transcended Jakarta and is as popular in Kalimantan as he is in Papua as he is in Sumatra.” Widodo’s meteoric rise was built on a promise of “a new Jakarta,” sparking hope amongst ordinary Indonesians that politics, long dominated by former generals and elites tied to fallen autocrat Suharto, may be changing.

Mietzner calls him a “pop culture phenomenon” in much the same way current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was in 2003, when he first ran for office. At the time Yudhoyono was a little known minister with few accomplishments to speak of, but appealed to an electorate looking for a non-combative leader who would build bridges and strive for consensus. “With Jokowi it’s the same thing,” says Mietzner. “Just one decade after that we have different requirements. What people want is an anti-SBY – somebody who goes beyond the pompous state language – they want somebody who goes to the grassroots and tries to solve problems,” he adds, referring to Yudhoyono by his initials.

When Widodo came out on top after the first round of voting in the race to be Jakarta’s governor last July, political commentators said the surprise win illustrated that the city’s residents were fed up with Jakarta’s graft-ridden politics and were eager for reform. Incumbent Fauzi Bowo had powerful political backers and financial heft at his disposal – his assets included a Hummer SUV and a Van Gogh painting. Widodo, on the other hand, had a reputation for being clean – a rarity amongst politicians in a country ranked by Berlin-based Transparency International as one of the world’s most corrupt. He also had a track record for transforming Surakarta, the mid-size city where he served as mayor, into a model of efficiency.

As mayor, Widodo helped relocate vendors sprawled along the city’s streets to ease the flow of traffic. He also introduced a modern tram system and upgraded traditional markets, providing support to the many vendors who depended on this infrastructure for their livelihoods. After a main river, the Bengawan Solo, spilled its banks in 2007, inundating poor neighborhoods, he helped relocate more than 1,000 households by providing this sizeable population with land and subsidized housing. In the following years, he worked in close contact with groups like Solo Kota Kita, a local non-profit organization that supports participatory planning. Taken together, that work landed him a nod from the City Mayors Foundation, an international think-tank that ranked Widodo as the world’s third best mayor in 2012.

Photo © Reuters/Supri