The New Face of Indonesian Democracy

By Derwin Pereira
Joko Widodo, better known as 'Jokowi has experienced a meteoric rise in Indonesian politics. 'Source: NHD-Info's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Joko Widodo, better known as ‘Jokowi’ has experienced a meteoric rise in Indonesian politics. Source: NHD-Info’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Indonesia’s democratic consolidation took a step forward with the nomination of Jakarta governor Joko Widodo as the presidential candidate of the Indonesian Democratic party – struggle. The presidential election, which will be held in July following parliamentary elections next month, could be expected to entrench the political gains made in the vast Southeast Asian archipelagic state since the downfall of the autocrat Suharto in 1998.

Jokowi, as he is called, promises to renew Indonesians’ faith in a democracy sullied by corruption and inefficiency. The Suharto court was known for its opulent corruption, but much of that was blamed on autocracy and closed circuits of power and influence. The survival of those ills into the democratic era undermined the idea that popular rule could provide a better life for the people through the honesty, transparency and accountability of their leaders.

Jokowi could prove that democracy is self-correcting. His personal integrity anchors his charisma as a young, forward-looking and accessible leader. His governorship of Indonesia’s capital city has been free of the huge corruption scandals that plague the rest of the country. His tolerance of criticism and his ability to reach out to his detractors differentiate him from politicians who are either defensive or aggressive because they fear that their time is up.

If elected, Jokowi could anchor Indonesian politics in another fundamental way – symbolically. All countries have political symbols, but in Indonesia, symbolism has a country. Suharto surrounded himself with the symbolic aura of Javanese kingship, casting his rule as the modern equivalent of a benign ancient reign. He expected his acts of noblesse oblige – primarily economic development, and law and order – to be viewed reverentially by a grateful populace that would accept him as one invested with almost a divine right to rule. His liveried retinues of economists, technocrats and security courtiers played up that image relentlessly. When he fell, his faked mandate of heaven was deposed along with him.

Suharto’s successors tried to reverse his legacy. However, B.J. Habibie distinguished himself more by his phlegmatic nationalism than by anything else. The devout Abdurrahman Wahid did not leave a deep imprint on Indonesian politics. Megawati Sukarnoputri’s privileged background as daughter of founding president Sukarno was useful only up to a point in a post-iconic age. The cerebral and distant Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is presiding over his party’s decline. These presidents all discarded the symbolism of Suharto’s imperial presidency, but were unable to replace it with a credible political image of their own.

The 52-year-old Jokowi’s boyish looks, unaffected ways and ability to remain unspoiled by his gubernatorial power endear him to Indonesians who have had enough of political egotism, whether autocratic or democratic. He could inaugurate Indonesia’s first post-imperial presidency. If he does, he will move the country closer to the idea of democracy as a political mechanism that reduces the existential distance between rulers and the ruled.

In this sense, Jokowi resembles the presidential hopeful Barack Obama in 2008. The Bush presidency had polarized America into two political nations co-existing in one constitutional state. Mr. Obama sought to reconnect the two Americas of imperial elites and everyday masses. Similarly, Jokowi wishes to remind the Jakarta elite that it owes its privileged position to the tolerance of toiling Indonesians.

An important factor in Jokowi’s favor is that he is a pan-Indonesian phenomenon. His popularity has spread across the geographically and ethnically diverse country, from Aceh in the east to Papua in the west.

His likely rivals in the presidential race – businessman Aburizal Bakrie of the Golkar party and retired general Prabowo Subianto of the Gerindra party – cannot match that breadth of support. Moreover, the first is weighed down by accusations of business wrongdoing and the second by alleged human rights abuses when he was in the army. Jokowi is not.

Jokowi is so attractive to a corruption-tired populace that it is possible that he will win in the first round of the election. Although poll numbers now give him less than the 50 percent threshold to avoid a run-off in the second round, the momentum behind him is strong and growing. But even if he falls short in the first round, he is poised to prevail in the second round.

Of course, he will not win by default. Given his popularity, the other candidates will bring to bear on him their undoubted firepower. For the 63-year-old Mr. Prabowo, the prospects of Jokowi winning and remaining in power for 10 years would be chilling. Mr. Prabowo, who has invested huge financial resources and time in a nationwide campaign, is hardly willing to see his chances of becoming president being destroyed. He could be expected to mount a vigorous campaign to regain the political initiative.

Finally, Jokowi will now have to make a transition from a municipal stage to the national stage. He will have to present his views on key national and international issues. For example, will he continue with the nationalist bent in economic policy so evident in the past year? How can he safeguard Indonesia’s interests at a time when China’s maritime assertiveness and the American pivot to Asia are leading to big-power games being played out in Indonesia’s sphere of influence?

Indonesians are waiting for the answers. However, they are waiting even more for a new face that they can look up to, to entrench democracy as a way of life but also to cleanse it of the toxins that have accumulated in the body politic since the departure of the Suharto regime.

 Mr. Derwin Pereira who covered Indonesia as a journalist for more than a decade, heads Pereira International, a Singapore-based political consultancy. He is also a member of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. This post first appeared on the Business Times site here on March 19, 2014. Re-posted with permission.

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