What a Jokowi Presidency Might Mean for Indonesia’s Future

My contribution to the August edition of The Kashmir Walla Magazine about what the Jokowi victory might mean for Indonesia’s future. You can find the original text here 

Jokowi gestures during a rally in Proklamasi Monument Park in Jakarta. Image www.themalaysianinsider.com
Jokowi during a rally in Proklamasi Monument Park in Jakarta. Image http://www.themalaysianinsider.com

Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo was declared Indonesia’s president elect on July 22, winning almost 71 million votes and 53 per cent of the count. He represents Indonesia’s first President from an ordinary background without elite political lineage and the first genuinely post-Suharo political figure. For many observers, a Jokowi-led government represents an Indonesia whose time has finally come.

Jokowi grew up near a slum area in the central Javanese city of Solo where he would later become mayor at the beginning of his meteoric political career. His rise from humble beginnings has been his greatest political achievement so far, showing that Indonesian democracy is ready to elect a leader “from the people” rather than someone “born to rule”. He is a leader who embodies the hopes of ordinary Indonesians.

While his constituents and many observers hold high hopes for the man, in reality it may be difficult for Jokowi to live up to expectations of him as a reformer able to lead Indonesia beyond the period of democratic stagnation that has marked the end of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s reign.

Leading the world’s third largest democracy will also be made particularly difficult owing to the reality that Jokowi only holds only a third of the seats in Indonesian parliament.

In a nation as complex as Indonesia with a political culture reflective of that complexity, steering the country towards greater prosperity is an expectation that successive post-Suharto leaders have failed to live up to.

Following the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998, Indonesia had three successive post-Suharto Presidents: B.J. Habibie, Abdurrahmad Wahid, and Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Throughout this period, Indonesia had been characterised as a nation at a critical turning point, and the world had high hopes that Indonesia would emerge as a dominant regional power. But in the turbulence of the transition to democracy, these presidencies are now characterised more by their failure to steer Indonesia to its’ expected ascendency, rather than their successes.

In the wake of successive leadership failures, rather than rising from the ashes of the Suharto regime Indonesia instead faced a multitude of new problems and had to turn to international donors for economic rescue.

From 2004 under the two-term presidency of incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), Indonesia was on the way to getting back on it’s feet.

The 2004 election gave a popular mandate to SBY and saw the country emerge as politically stable state in a consolidated democracy. At the end of Yudhoyono’s first term, he could claim a degree of economic success.

But Yudhoyono leaves office less popular than he was at the beginning of his second term, with many criticising democratic rollbacks across human rights, corruption, and electoral management. As Marcus Mietzner explains, the end of the SBY era has been marked by “democratic stagnation and, in some areas, partial regress”.

The Economists’ Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index also reflects this bleak picture of the nation, classifying Indonesia as a ‘flawed democracy’ in its 2006 and 2008 surveys, with the country’s score and overall ranking on a downward trend.

Mietzer points to conservative factions within Indonesia’s elite who tried hard to roll back democratic reforms during SBY’s term, “leading to a moderate but noteworthy decline in Indonesia’s democratic quality”.

It is against this backdrop that we have seen the ascendancy of the populist figures of Jokowi and his political opponent Prabowo.

Throughout their campaigns, these politicians have stood for everything Yudhoyono proved not to be: Staunchly nationalistic, decisive, practical, and invoking the hopes of little guy (orang kecil) in creating a brighter future for all Indonesians, rather than the elite few.

When Jokowi won indonesia’s presidential election with a margin of 6.3 percentage points, in his victory speech he again invoked the hopes of ordinary Indonesia, calling on his constituents to look to the future with optimism and enthusiasm:

“This presidential election has provoked fresh optimism in the Indonesian nation. An independent soul and sense of political responsibility blossoms in … It’s now our responsibility to prove to ourselves, to other nations and especially to our children and our grandchildren, that … politics is freedom.”

Jokowi’s party, the PDI-P (Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle) and their coalition’s manifesto also evokes a call for optimism and change, a politics based on the principles gotong-royong (an Indonesian expression about working together to solve problems), and a socially and economically progressive platform. But the party’s first challenges will definitely prove unpopular.

Jokowi’s first major reform will be to cutting into the country’s fuel subsidies, which currently distort the economy and consume around a fifth of the annual budget. An important and necessary reform, however when there was a small increase in the cost of fuel last year Jakarta was shut down for a day by the protests that ensued.

The leader is also expected to make further difficult reforms which are needed restore Indonesia’s growth and set the country on the path to greater and more evenly spread prosperity. But as Gareth Leather, Asia economist at research firm Capital Economics pointed out to Time, “it is clearly too early to tell whether Jokowi will be the man to get Indonesia’s economy back on track. There is no magic bullet to reviving growth.”

As there is no magic bullet to reviving growth, there is also no guarantee that Indonesia’s representatives will be inspired to unity and support Jokowi’s progressive mandate, and Jokowi’s coalition of parties presently only holds around a third of the seats in the Indonesian parliament.

His rival Prabowo’s coalition has around two thirds of the seats.

Considering the incumbent Yudhoyono held a 70% majority parliament, he still found it extremely challenging to pass legislation. His inability to enact reform paralysed his last term.

Having seen what factionalism and internal politics can do to leadership groups in the country even when conditions in the DPR (House of Representatives) are in the government’s favour, those hopeful for a “new Indonesia” under a Jokowi presidency must remain mindful that elements within the regime may not necessarily work together cohesively in Jokowi’s favour. Even on a good day, government factions even within parties can and will undermine each other, compete for leadership internally, and engage in plots and counter-plots which disrupt every day decision making.

Jokowi proved his ability to solve major problems presented to his office during his time as mayor of both Solo and Jakarta. From his resoluteness in addressing the cities’ long neglected flood problems, to his firm approach to transforming the region’s massive bureaucratic inefficiencies.

However the idea that he will prove to be a reformer who will ruffle feathers, deal with Indonesia’s massive graft problems, and do on a larger national scale what he did so effectively in Solo and later he starting doing in Jakarta, is likely unrealistic.  After all, back in 2004 SBY was elected in an atmosphere of similar optimism with expectations that he would be the reformist leader the country needed. Within five years Indonesia has instead been left thoroughly disappointed in by his leadership.

There probably won’t be a great deal of meaningful progress under a Jokowi Government in Indonesia. But for now, that doesn’t matter much. There is still an atmosphere of hope in Indonesia, and a feeling that with the election of Jokowi, Indonesia has been accorded an administration more consonant with its present.


‘Indonesia’s democratic masses brought victory to Jokowi’ – The Conversation

Article by Professor Ariel Heryanto for The Conversation about the power of civic volunteerism throughout the Jokowi-JK Presdiential campaign. As the author points out, something overlooked by most foreign commentators during this period:

“Most international commentators have overlooked or underestimated the critical force behind Indonesia’s historic moment. They focused narrowly on Jokowi and his official team or on Prabowo. Elite-centric analyses represent the easiest type of investigation for outsiders with no or limited language mastery and living experience in the country”.


President elect Joko Widodo’s success is hugely a result of the spontaneous popular support from largely non-organised groups of ordinary Indonesians. AAP/NEWZULU/Zoe Reynolds

The 2014 Indonesian presidential election has been remarkable. Not only in comparison to the country’s long history of dictatorship that crumbled less than two decades ago, but also to democratic processes worldwide.

Voting is not compulsory in Indonesia. Yet volunteer groups took leading roles in making the election a spectacular success. Elsewhere coercion remains a feature in more than a few of the so-called “liberal” democratic countries, where elections at home are mandatory by law or held in other countries at gunpoint.

Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s president elect, is a paradox. Better known as Jokowi, he stands out as extraordinary among politicians in Indonesia and beyond, for being so ordinary (and comfortably so) in appearance, speech and background. Much has been written about him and his qualities. So let me move on to focus on others that made him president of the “world’s third-largest democracy”.

Victory of ordinary citizens

Jokowi’s success is hugely a result of the spontaneous popular support from largely non-organised groups of ordinary Indonesians. They converged in various forms, with a high degree of fluidity. Famous artists and public intellectuals form parts of it, but the majority are everyday commoners.

A man carries a boy to a Jokowi rally. Everyday commoners are behind Jokowi’s success.AAP/NEWZULU/Zoe Reynolds

I am reluctant to call this movement “people’s power”. This term is narrowly associated with street mobilisation, masculine force and martyrs of violence, following the EDSA revolutions in Manila decades ago, and more recently the pro-royalist rallies in Bangkok.

Like Jokowi, his supporters are inclined to soft power, such as puns, visual arts and music. Women are reportedly overrepresented. Mostly apolitical in their daily lives, they belong to none of the contesting political parties. Their work overshadowed the political machinery in ensuring Jokowi’s victory.

Jokowi supporters take selfies at a rally. In countering smear campaigns against Jokowi, they use humour of notable originality. AAP Image/NEWZULU/Zoe Reynolds

International observers’ shortcomings

Most international commentators have overlooked or underestimated the critical force behind Indonesia’s historic moment. They focused narrowly on Jokowi and his official team or on Prabowo. Elite-centric analyses represent the easiest type of investigation for outsiders with no or limited language mastery and living experience in the country.

Rarely attempted, but more compelling than ever before, is a serious look at the millions of largely nameless and unorganised people who brought Jokowi to the presidency.

As a candidate, Jokowi had limited resources and interest to mobilise the masses to support him. From early on his supporters impatiently pressed him to run for president. In contrast to the flow of the familiar “money politics”, individual citizens proudly published bank slips on social media, showing off their tiny share of donations to Jokowi’s election campaign.

Jakarta’s pro-Jokowi July 5 concert attracted over 100,000 people. Unpaid volunteers with no political party affiliation designed and ran the event.

Likewise, a leading spearhead in monitoring and legitimising the vote counting outside the state apparatus was Kawal Pemilu. It is a free online service that belongs to a small group of young individual volunteers who were strangers before voting day.

Causes and consequences

Two questions follow. What brought the emergence of these forceful masses? What benefits might these masses enjoy once Jokowi has become their president?

One answer to the first question is already suggested above: Jokowi personifies, and thus attracts, millions of his compatriots who have commonly endured decades of political abuse by the political elite. A second factor strengthened it, namely the widespread apprehension of a possible return of New Order authoritarianism if Prabowo won the election. But both factors only explain the interest, not the capacity of the masses to assert their will.

To understand their capacity, some credit is due to the service of social media, as attested to by Kawal Pemilu and the protest of Indonesian migrant workers on voting day in Hong Kong. More important is the serious and protracted intra-elite rivalry that has preoccupied members of the old regime. They will not go away with the ascendancy of Jokowi.

Until the surviving elite of the old regime resolves its internal conflict, the general population enjoys an extra space to assert their aspirations. Thus, a rather sombre answer to the second question above.

Unless adequately nurtured and consolidated institutionally in a timely way, the energy and support of Jokowi’s supporters will soon dissipate after his presidential inauguration. Opportunities exist, but there is no guarantee that Indonesia’s democratic moments will last long or flourish.

On paper, analysts often speak of democracy as categories that distinguish countries as democratic or non-democratic. In the real and messy world, democracy is best understood as moments or momentary qualities; some being more spectacular in some place than elsewhere, but only for some time.

Jokowi Confirmed as Next President of Indonesia

I wrote this piece on 21 July 2014 for The Kashmir Walla’s Magazine’s coverage of Indonesia’s Election

Jokowi, pictured when he was the mayor of Solo (yes, wearing a Napalm shirt. He's a metal fan)
Pak Jokowi, pictured when he was the mayor of Solo (yes, wearing a Napalm shirt. He’s a metal fan)

Joko Widodo has been declared the winner of Indonesia’s presidential election and will take office in October.

Indonesia’s Election Commission (the KPU) has declared that Mr Widodo won the poll with almost 71 million votes, which is over 53 per cent of the count.

Prabowo Subianto, former military general and leader of Partai Gerakan Indonesia Raya (The Greater Indonesia Party) received 62.5 million votes or 46.8 per cent.

Yesterday afternoon, Prabowo Subianto and his running mate Hatta rejected the 2014 presidential election, which they claimed was “legally flawed”.

Some supporters claimed this meant Prabowo was no longer an actual candidate. But the KPU declaration indicates his status remained unchanged.

Despite Prabowo’s allegations, independent analysts have said that the poll has been by and large, free and fair.

A self-made man from humble beginnings, Jokowi represents change for Indonesia.

The much-respected former mayor of Solo and Jakarta won the election through positive campaigning, and by promoting active civic participation in the campaigning process, showing that political volunteerism in Indonesia has emerged as a powerful political force in the 2014 Presidential Election.

For a country who has always had leaders with close ties to the country’s elite, Jokowi represents a new style of leadership for Indonesia.

As one young Indonesian activist and author Fahd Djibran told me yesterday, for Indonesia, “Jokowi is a symbol of hope, and a leader who can embody the figure of [our] hopes into reality”.

Jokowi-JK: The Power of Political Participation and Civic Volunteerism

Jokowi with hundreds of thousands of supporters, the last campaign at Bung Karno Stadium, Jakarta. Image: tribunnews.com
Jokowi with hundreds of thousands of supporters, the last campaign at Bung Karno Stadium, Jakarta. Image: tribunnews.com

An interesting factor to have come out of the 2014 Presidential Campaign has been the power of the various citizen-led campaigns through which the Jokowi-JK campaign was promoted, showing that political volunteerism in Indonesia has emerged as a powerful political force in the 2014 Presidential Election.

As Fahd Djibran explains, “thousands of volunteers carried the Jokowi-JK message, ranging from the celebrities, activists, religious leaders to ordinary citizens”. Also interesting was the phenomenon of voluntarism among celebrities, as Djibran elaborates, “in Indonesia such figures are usually employed as “paid players”, but in the instance of the Jokowi-JK campaign they voluntarily participated in campaigning and devoted themselves in a more ideological capacity, and prove to themselves that they are not merely campaign “sweetener”s or “cheerleaders” alone”.

The Support of Indonesian Artists

Jokowi Pictured with Rock Band Slank. Image presiden-indonesia.com
Jokowi Pictured with Rock Band Slank. Image presiden-indonesia.com

The music group Slank was among the ranks of volunteers behind the Jokowi-JK campaign. A rock group estimated to have more than 8 million followers in Indonesia, or nearly 5% of the population of Indonesia, their followers are known as “Slankers”.

Although there is no exact data about the number of “Slankers” in Indonesia, the official membership of Slankers registered in 98 cities in Indonesia amounts to more than one million members. Slank mobilised the support in the ranks of their fans to promote the Jokowi-JK message, and also on a voluntary basis. The rock group also wrote a song and organised a concert in support of the Jokowi-JK campaign.

Other celebrities involved in the Jokowi-JK campaign also include Glen Fredly, JFlow, Cak Lontong, Oppie Andal, Olga Lydia, Crossfade, Tompi and SID working in the area and the ability of each to support Jokowi-JK.

“Salam 2 Jari” Concert

Last Sunday, more than 100 artists and musicians held the event “Salam 2 Jari” to promote the Jokowi-JK campaign. The artists invovlved were not asked to do so by the Jokowi-JK campaigners. The event was orgnaised soleley in support of the Jokowi-JK campaign, and shows a growing awareness and willingness amongst Indonesians to engage actively in the democratic process.

The emergence of this kind of voluntarism in the context of politics in Indonesia reveals the development an exciting new phase in Indonesia’s democratic story.

The activism of Indonesian civil society against the slick campaigns of Indonesia’s political elite shows that democracy is the real winner here, and heralds a new era of political engagement by the people of Indonesia.

Read more analysis and discussion at Inspirasi.co