Indonesia has just elected its seventh president in an unexpectedly close election.
What makes the victory of Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, better known as Jokowi, out of the ordinary, however, is not the tightness of the race (he still won a convincing 53 per cent of the vote) but the back story of the winning candidate.
He is the first Indonesian to be elected to the presidency who does not hail from the country’s political or military elite.
In fact, he was born poor, in a riverbank slum, and sold furniture for a living before deciding a mere nine years ago to enter politics. He was twice elected mayor of a small city, and then became governor of the sprawling capital city of Jakarta in 2012.
By all accounts, he has kept to his simple ways. He became popular because of his frequent and unannounced visits to poor areas in Jakarta, and for displaying a common touch. What a Jokowi voter told the BBC after the election must have been said, by other voters, many times over: “He works hard and he tries to do good for the people. He is one of us.”
Despite founding father Sukarno’s undeniable charisma, no Indonesian ever thought of him as less than larger-than-life, as “one of us”. The presidents who succeeded him, from the dictator Suharto to the current president, former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, were all card-carrying members of Indonesia’s elite. That someone like Jokowi is now headed for the presidential palace is a historic achievement for a young democracy like Indonesia’s. (Indeed, it is an achievement for any democracy, young or old.)
Precisely for that reason, we shouldn’t expect smooth sailing for the new administration when it takes office in October. “Jokowi’s the first genuinely post-Suharto figure. Everybody else comes from that era, including Prabowo [Subianto],” the ex-general who ran against Jokowi, political analyst Paul Rowland told Reuters. That was an advantage during the campaign; it may be a serious liability in governance.
Jokowi’s political coalition won only about a third of the seats in parliament, in the legislative elections that preceded the presidential contest. Prabowo’s coalition controls about two-thirds. “President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono held a 70 per cent majority in parliament and it didn’t help him at all. Widodo will try to engage parliament directly rather than building coalitions beforehand but that will be a challenge,” Australian academic Marcus Mietzner told the BBC.
The day after the election, The Jakarta Post hailed Jokowi’s lead in the quick count as “a people’s victory”. The newspaper, a partner in Asia News Network, began its front-story thus: “The world’s third-largest democracy swept away on Wednesday the last vestiges of the Suharto era ... In an improbable story, Indonesians elevated an ordinary man to become a nobleman.”
The Post quoted from Jokowi’s speech before thousands of jubilant supporters: “Winning the presidential election means serving the people, taking care of the people’s welfare and moving all elements toward achieving prosperity and justice.”
One of the key hurdles in achieving prosperity and justice in Southeast Asia’s largest economy is the vexing question of Indonesia’s fuel subsidy, which costs the government about $20 billion a year. Jokowi has pledged to resolve the issue by phasing the subsidies out, but it is difficult to see an easy fix to a problem that affects Indonesians on a daily basis.
As for Indonesia’s role in Asean and in Asia, the president-elect has pledged to renew his country’s commitment to its so-called middle-power policy; under Jokowi, then, Manila and other Asean capitals can look forward to more of the same regional leadership from Jakarta.
One thing going for Jokowi: He has earned a reputation for appointing advisers and assistants on merit, as mayor and as governor. “I can cut and then replace them [if they fail]. It’s very simple for me,” he said. “They have to be clean, they have to be competent, they have to have good leadership and a commitment to serve the people.”