Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Jakarta Outsider Joko Widodo Tipped For National Role

Pak Joko has already changed the face of Jakarta; provided medical coverage for the poor

By Ben Bland

As he conducts one of his trademark spot checks on a canal dredging project in a slum area, Joko Widodo, Jakarta governor, is mobbed by hundreds of locals desperate to shake his hand, take a photo or grab one of the exercise books that he is handing out. But although this flood-prone city of 12m people is well into the rainy season, disaster mitigation is not the main game in town. 

With a reputation for being corruption-free, results-focused and down-to-earth, Mr Widodo, universally called Jokowi, has surged ahead in the polls to become the frontrunner in next year’s presidential election, even though he refuses to say whether he will stand.

“Life is tough here, it’s dirty and smelly, it floods often and there are few jobs,” says Jaja, a 50-year-old resident of the Cakung slum that Mr Widodo is visiting, as he pulls a makeshift ferry across the fetid canal. “But I’m happy to see Jokowi. Hopefully, life will be better with him in Jakarta and as president.”

The fervour surrounding Mr Widodo says as much about Indonesians’ frustration with endemic corruption, widening inequality and poor leadership as it does about the Jakarta governor’s credentials after just over a year running the capital.

In less than two years, the 52-year-old has enjoyed a meteoric rise from small town mayor in his home city of Solo to most popular politician in the world’s third-biggest democracy.

Aburizal Bakrie
An average of four recent polls shows Mr Widodo way out in front of other possible presidential candidates, with 27 per cent wanting him to lead the country, compared with 16 per cent for former general Prabowo Subianto and 9 per cent for controversial businessman Aburizal Bakrie.

The key to his success, Mr Widodo tells the Financial Times, is simple.

“Democracy is about improving the lives of the people,” he says in his city hall office, wearing an untucked white shirt, black trousers and canvas shoes. “So I go to the ground, I go to the villages, I go to the riverbank, I go to the market to meet the people. I ask them what they want and what they need and we give solutions.”

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who will stand down in 2014, after reaching the two-term legal limit, has led Indonesia through a period of political stabilisation and rapid economic growth over the past nine years.

But voters and foreign investors have become dissatisfied with his failure to come good on promises to fight corruption, build much-needed infrastructure and reduce inequality. 

Mr Widodo, by contrast, highlights his record of delivery in the capital, from the introduction of free healthcare and education for poor residents to the start of construction on Jakarta’s first subway system, which has been delayed for decades.

In a political and economic system that is controlled by a tight-knit elite, his status as an outsider has contributed to his mesmeric popularity.

But, if he is to run for the presidency, he will need the support and financing of the establishment, most likely in the shape of Megawati Sukarnoputri, the former president whose party Jokowi represents.

Although some worry that he is a populist, the former businessman, whose family runs a furniture export company in Solo, says that improving the lives of Jakarta’s downtrodden millions will benefit investors.

“If we create a better social environment in Jakarta, then of course investment will expand,” says the heavy-metal fan in the back of his car, speaking over a CD by Judas Priest, one of his favourite bands.

Back in his office, he explains that setting the monthly minimum wage, which in Indonesia is determined by local governments, has been the hardest decision he has had to make.

Last year, he increased it by more than 40 per cent to Rp2.2m ($190), upsetting business owners. This year, with the economy facing renewed headwinds, he has only increased it 11 per cent, but says that workers are much better off because of improved access to health and education services.

It is one of several major battles against powerful vested interests where Mr Widodo has shown his resolve.

In the most populous Muslim nation, he has faced off against Islamic extremists who wanted to unseat a Christian official because of her religion. He has taken on the local mafia organisations that were holding back plans to revamp a major market. And he has clashed publicly with Mr Yudhoyono’s policy of promoting car sales at a time when traffic gridlock damages the economy and the quality of life in Jakarta.

Citing the success of Boris Johnson in London and Michael Bloomberg in New York, he says that big city mayors can set the tone for the rest of the country.

But he remains tight-lipped when asked if he wants to become a national leader.

“I don’t think about that,” he says, laughing. “Now I’m very focused on my responsibilities as governor of Jakarta.”

Megawati holds key to success.

Despite his huge poll lead, Mr Widodo’s path to the presidency of this nation of 250m is far from assured – if he wants the job that is.

The fate of a man who many Indonesians hope can revamp their democratic system lies in the hands of one woman.

Only political parties can nominate presidential candidates in Indonesia and to do so they must meet a threshold of 20 per cent of seats in parliament or 25 per cent of the popular vote in parliamentary elections in April 2014.

Mr Widodo’s party, the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P), is chaired by former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of founding president Sukarno.

She alone has the right to choose PDI-P’s next presidential candidate and is keeping her cards close to her chest. Many within the party consider the 66-year-old, who lost the past two elections to Mr Yudhoyono, too old to stand again and want her to anoint Mr Widodo.

But others fret that an outsider with a record for clean government represents a threat to the party’s patronage and influence-peddling system.

“Everyone is looking very carefully at the interactions between Megawati and Jokowi – every word, every gesture, every part of their body language, to get any indication where she’s leaning,” said Marcus Mietzner, an Indonesian politics lecturer at the Australian National University. “But anyone who claims to know what she is doing is lying because no one, even in her inner circle, really knows.”

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