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Will a vote away from elite patronage-based leadership ease Indonesia’s often-touchy relationship with Australia? By Hamish McDonald.

Joko Widodo’s new deal

Indonesian presidential candidates Prabowo Subianto, left, and Joko Widodo shake hands during a televised debate in Jakarta last weekend.
Credit: AP

When Joko Widodo finally came forward as a candidate for Indonesia’s presidency four months ago, some of his fellow Javanese immediately thought of Petruk Dadi Ratu, a shadow-play puppetry piece embedded deep in their culture.

It’s about Petruk, the thin one of four “sacred fools” the Javanese have inserted into their wayang version of the Hindu epics. In this episode, Petruk comes across a talisman of power mislaid by a great warrior and finds himself king, with chaotic results.

Tall and skinny, known universally by his nickname Jokowi, the 53-year-old Widodo is utterly unlike anyone else who’s been a serious candidate for the national leadership, coming from a low-income, artisanal background rather than any elite. If he won, would it be an accident that also ends in chaos, perhaps without comedy?

Yet on Wednesday this week, a majority of the nearly 150 million Indonesians who voted took the risk, according to calculations by the most respected vote-watching institutions whose agents watched the open count across the archipelago. That result is disputed by the rival candidate, Prabowo Subianto, but there looks to be a margin of about five million votes that will be difficult for him to shift by recounts and appeals. If confirmed in the official result on July 22, it marks a historic shift for Indonesia’s society and its young democracy.

Prabowo, 62, is descended from Javanese aristocracy, son and grandson of leading independence-era figures and one-time son-in-law of the late president Suharto. He was a soldier full of machismo and he’s not been abashed about displaying and using personal wealth, put at $US148 million in his pre-election declaration.

Jokowi is the son of a lumber trader and grew up in a small house with bamboo-slat walls on a riverbank in the small Central Java city of Solo. He advanced through local schools to university, started a furniture business, became a popular mayor who cleaned up Solo, then won the governorship of the capital, Jakarta, in 2012. His total assets, including the business, are a more modest $US2.5 million.  

“The two candidates indeed represent two visions for the country,” says Surabaya businessman and writer Johannes Nugroho. “Prabowo embodies the quasi-feudal Indonesia in which leaders emerge from ‘lineage’ families such as his, the continuity of tradition and privilege of the ruling class. His brand of power is paternalism in its highest form. In complete contrast, Joko Widodo is a self-made businessman who ventured into politics, whose ancestry is no different from that of most Indonesians. Yet this is the essence of his mass appeal. Jokowi is the Indonesian Dream in the making.”

It has been a close struggle between the old and the new. “In Java, there is a belief that the leader has to be impressive, handing out benefits,” says Suko Widodo, a political scientist in Surabaya who gives media coaching to politicians. “By contrast Jokowi is asking for volunteers and donations from the voters, instead of handing out money to the people. Prabowo looks the part.”

Jokowi also had to overcome cynicism imbued by endless major corruption cases. “Some people think that Jokowi may be a good pure man now, but that if he becomes president he will enrich his family and his cronies,” says Leak Kustiya, editor-in-chief of the Jawa Pos newspaper group, the biggest in Indonesia. 

Then there was the sheer weight of money thrown into the campaign by Prabowo and his billionaire brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, backed by an organisation modelled on US presidential campaigns and drilled into readiness over the four years since Prabowo founded his own Great Indonesia Movement, abbreviated to Gerindra.

By contrast, Jokowi was installed only four months ago as candidate for the nationalist Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle when Megawati Sukarnoputri − the 67-year-old daughter of founding president Sukarno and the party’s lineage-bearer − moved reluctantly aside. Jokowi’s campaign was based on enthusiastic but poorly organised volunteers, his rhetoric wooden compared with Prabowo’s grandiose oratory, and his nine-point policy only issued a week before the vote. Megawati’s daughter, Puan Maharani, withheld a lot of campaign funds for her own future career.

Plus there was a black campaign against him: a tabloid newspaper running fake documents purporting to show Jokowi was really of Chinese descent and a baptised Christian. The newspapers arrived at Islamic schools across Java, all too obviously using an address list held by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, whose minister comes from a party in Prabowo’s coalition.

Prabowo had more real negatives: a hot temper, troubled companies, the lack of a potential first lady in his life, and enlistment of Islamic extremists. Most of all there was his dark military record, which started, according to senior army peers, with a psychological assessment as unfit for command and ended with the abduction and torture of protest leaders in Jakarta, for which he was cashiered in 1998.

Yet this got delicate treatment from most of the media, and was excused by a well-off elite yearning for firmer leadership. Until the last minute, polls showed the race too close to call. And in a tight result, it was widely feared, so-called uang saksi (witness money) might be deployed on a massive scale to distort the vote count.

Still, Jokowi’s volunteer-based campaign seems to have won over money. Now Indonesia looks set on a new style of leadership when the incumbent Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, or “SBY”, a polished former army general, hands over in October. 

Jokowi wears casual work clothes, attends heavy-metal concerts, and wants to open up forbidden areas such as Papua. As city administrator, he’s been hands-on: turning up suddenly to check if officials are at work, replacing bureaucracy and bribes with online transactions, walking around neighbourhoods to hear complaints, sorting out markets, parks, and drainage. He has talked Islamic fanatics into behaving themselves, and turned away greedy developers. 

“He’s a humble person, a good listener, and smart, with a very nice family,” says Luhut Panjaitan, a former army general and trade minister turned coal magnate, who’s been closely involved in the Jokowi campaign. “He follows a simple lifestyle – it’s not feudalistic – runs his own company, and he’s hard working. But he is tough: he can say ‘No’ if necessary. He will be a very simple president, a president for the ordinary people.”

Actual policies and his likely cabinet are still being filled out. On both sides, the election campaign took a strongly nationalist hue, with preference for domestic business and food self-sufficiency stressed. Dependency on Australian cattle and beef will remain a hot issue; SBY’s ham-fisted efforts to get mining companies to refine their output locally will be hard to modify. 

Jokowi has shown the inklings of a tougher approach to the major fiscal issues that have dogged SBY, notably by eliminating the current $US20 billion a year spent on subsidising domestic fuel prices within four years, so he can divert more funds to universal healthcare and free education. The tradition of appointing classic liberal economists as finance minister and central bank governor is likely to continue. 

Foreign policy has scarcely figured, but more continuity of Indonesia’s cautious, ostensibly non-aligned stance is expected than if Prabowo had won. Though Jokowi has some controversial former generals among his backers, Western diplomats are relieved they won’t have to deal with a president who’s been persona non grata on human rights grounds; Malaysian and Singaporean neighbours that they won’t face a volatile character who might escalate disagreements into conflict. Few are yet prepared to say what a huge positive Jokowi might be for Indonesia’s problematic image, notably in Australia. 

Jakarta has had a maverick president before, the late Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) from 1999 to 2001. Though from a revered family of Islamic leaders and a much-tested politician himself, he struggled to manage business and political interest groups manoeuvring around him and was impeached within two years, his former aide Ratih Hardjono points out. 

“When kind-hearted Jokowi walks into the Merdeka Palace, it remains to be seen whether he has the strength to deal with all these competing interests,” Hardjono says. “This will be so fierce and immediate, stronger than any tornado he has weathered in his lifetime. It will be nothing like being the mayor of Solo, or the Jakarta governorship in which he has not proven much.”

Will it be a repeat of the wayang story of Petruk becoming king?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 12, 2014 as "Joko's new deal". Subscribe here.

Hamish McDonald
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor.