Indonesia’s President Suharto reigned for over three decades based on an implicit compact with his citizenry. The former general would ensure the world’s fourth most populous nation prospered so its people could climb out of poverty, and in return they consented to his autocratic rule and turned a blind eye when his family and cronies looted the country. That arrangement worked for a while. In the 1970s and ’80s, Indonesia became one of the world’s most promising emerging economies, and Suharto achieved a substantial enough record of growth to claim the title Father of Development.
But he could only take Indonesia so far. In 1998, his regime collapsed after the country tumbled into a debt crisis. Politics in the capital of Jakarta descended into chaos, and at moments it seemed the nation of more than 17,000 islands might even break apart. Slowly, Indonesia embarked on an unlikely transformation into a new democracy. That process was completed on July 22, when Joko Widodo, Jakarta’s governor, was proclaimed the country’s President-elect.
Affectionately called Jokowi, he is the first leader of Indonesia unaffiliated with the ruling elite. The former furniture maker built his political career on his honesty, smart policies and good results. By defeating Prabowo Subianto, once one of Suharto’s favorite generals, in the race for the presidency, he has swept away the last vestiges of the old autocrat’s legacy.
Now he faces an entirely new challenge: prove that Indonesia’s democracy can work. There are still voices in Asia who believe that developing nations with open political systems lack the capability to end poverty and nurture industry. In China, President Xi Jinping seems to believe that ever tighter political control is needed to guide his country forward. Jokowi has an opportunity to confirm just the opposite—that liberal democracies in the emerging world can produce stellar economic results while also guaranteeing civil liberties and protecting human rights.
Indonesia has already defied the skeptics. The country has again become a rising star in the global economy, propelled by its increasingly wealthy 250 million people. But Indonesia, like many other emerging economies, is slipping. The International Monetary Fund expects GDP to expand by only 5.4% this year—not bad, but well short of the 6.5% achieved in 2011. The problem is the same one plaguing developing nations from India to Brazil: politicians, mired in factional infighting or lacking the necessary will, have failed to implement the reforms critical to keep growth going. Jokowi’s predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, set Indonesia on the right path but got lost in political wrangling and allowed reform to stall.
Now Jokowi must make up for lost time. Restrictive labor laws must be loosened to attract more job-creating manufacturing. The nation’s fraying infrastructure requires a serious upgrade. So does the inadequate education system. Costly fuel subsidies that strain the budget must be reduced. Most of all, he has to clamp down on the pervasive corruption that eats away at Indonesia.
None of this will be easy. Price hikes for a necessity like fuel could quickly bring protesters into the streets. Unfavorable headwinds in the global economy are blowing against him too.
But don’t count Jokowi out. As Jakarta’s governor, he expanded access to health care, launched the construction of a long-overdue urban railway to ease congestion in the traffic-choked city and insisted its often slothful civil servants improve their performance. Re-creating that success as President won’t be easy. He remains an outsider who lacks experience in national politics. Complicating matters, Jokowi’s political party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, only has a minority in the nation’s parliament, which means he’ll have to navigate reforms through a potentially messy coalition. Nor will the old guard fade away—Prabowo is contesting the election results in court.
Yet we should all root for Jokowi. Indonesia can become a source of growth for the struggling global economy and a democratic counterweight to autocratic Chinese influence in East Asia. Most of all, Jokowi can show the world that democrats can deliver higher incomes and good governance without riot police and political repression. If Jokowi wins, we all win.