The New Face of Indonesian Democracy

15 minute read

The passenger in 42K, deep in economy class, orders a plastic cup of milk from the flight attendant, then leans against the window for a nap. Far below, as Garuda Flight GA226 heads east toward the Indonesian heartland city of Solo, an angry mountain sends a vermilion blaze into the night sky, just another eruption in a country with the most active volcanoes on earth. A little girl named Shakira slowly makes her way to the bathrooms at the back of the plane, checking out each traveler with the forthright stare of a 5-year-old. She glances at the sleeping figure, then points, like an overexcited tourist on safari. “It’s Mr. Jokowi,” she says, delighted at her discovery. “He’s on the plane with me.”

On Oct. 20, Joko Widodo, universally known by the nickname Jokowi, will be sworn in as Indonesia’s seventh President. The gangly son of the slums will make history as the nation’s first head of state untethered from Indonesia’s political and military aristocracies. Just 16 years after dumping a long-ruling dictator, Indonesia has elected a President of the people. The achievement is all the more impressive given the sorry record of other developing nations attempting similar democratic shifts. Jokowi’s election victory in July against Prabowo Subianto — a former general and political scion (by a former marriage) — symbolized the electorate’s triumph over a ruling clique that had long treated this resource-rich nation of 253 million as a private fiefdom. Perhaps that’s why the 53-year-old former carpenter flies coach, a habit that irks some members of the presidential entourage. (He has also outfitted his bodyguards in batik shirts rather than in severe military-style uniforms, to complete the business-casual vibe.) “I am not so important that I need a big seat in business class,” says Jokowi, who stands 177 cm tall. “I am quite skinny. I don’t take so much space.”

Just a decade ago, Jokowi was a moderately successful furniture-factory owner attending business fairs in North Carolina, Utrecht and Cologne. Raised in a riverside shantytown in Solo (officially known as Surakarta), he had none of the advantages of patronage. When he became Solo’s mayor in 2005, then governor of Indonesia’s swarming, dysfunctional capital, Jakarta, seven years later, Jokowi rolled up his shirtsleeves, slashing the time for business permits and transforming trash collection. He improved public transportation and increased hospital beds.

It’s hardly the stuff of epic leadership. But Jokowi’s efficiency stood out amid the swamp of Indonesian politics and won him public support — even though, in a sound-bite era, he’s the opposite of quotable. Instead, this self-professed heavy-metal fan inhabits a world of spreadsheets and flow charts, urban grids and insurance claims. Vision is not Jokowi’s thing, even if head-banging to Metallica is. “It’s very important to be detail-oriented,” Jokowi tells TIME. “Check, check, check and then check again.” Philips Vermonte, a political analyst in Jakarta, half-jokingly calls Jokowi the “micro-manager-in-chief.”

There is much to micromanage. While it’s been five years since a major suicide attack on Indonesian soil, the nation still struggles with homegrown Muslim terrorists. Despite Indonesia’s vast natural resources, endemic graft and protectionism have corroded foreign investor interest. Over the past decade, Indonesia’s income inequality has widened to record levels. After years of 6% growth, the economy is slowing. Jokowi blithely promises 7% growth by 2018 and says that “the solution is to change consumption to production.” If only it were so simple. “There are a lot of questions about whether Jokowi will be able to run a big, complex country,” says Ernest Bower, chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. “My gut tells me history is going to call on Jokowi to provide leadership, and he will fulfill it.”

Little Big Nation

The superlatives attached to the world’s fourth most populous country are startling, if only because they are so often ignored. Indonesia is the planet’s most diverse nation, home to more than 13,000 islands spread over 3 million sq km, teeming with 300 major ethnic groups who speak more than double that number of distinct languages. The nation’s land and water boast a treasure trove of commodities; Indonesia often ranks as the world’s top exporter of thermal coal, nickel ore, refined tin and palm oil.

Nearly 90% of Indonesians are Muslim, with most practicing a moderate, syncretic form of Islam. But the country is also home to roughly 25 million Christians, along with Hindus, Buddhists and adherents to various animist and folk religions. The constitution recognizes various faiths and upholds secular virtues. Since the nation’s 1998 transition from the dictatorship of Suharto, who ruled for more than 30 years, to an exuberant if messy democracy, Indonesia has proved that a majority-Muslim country can be politically liberal. Jakartans are the most active tweeters in the world; 27% of Indonesians are on Facebook.

But for all its distinctions, Indonesia can seem invisible internationally. It rarely deploys its regional diplomatic weight, whether by standing up to China or positioning itself as a model of an emergent democracy. Indonesia is insular. “We’re not a global leader on anything,” says Yohanes Sulaiman, a political analyst at the Indonesian Defense University. “We’re deeply nationalistic but inactive internationally. That needs to change.”

Jokowi, the people’s President, may be the ultimate proof of Indonesia’s political maturation — but like his people, he still prefers to look inward. As he prepped for his inauguration, he seemed flustered at having to stake out positions on a host of global issues that went unexplored during an election campaign focused on domestic challenges. Jokowi will need to get up to speed. There’s the South China Sea, the vast maritime highway that China is claiming aggressively, despite competing claims by six other governments, including Jakarta. There’s also climate change — thanks chiefly to the highest deforestation rate on the planet, Indonesia is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after China and the U.S. The world’s largest archipelago nation is also very vulnerable to the rising seawaters that could come with rising temperatures.

Faced with these questions, and more, Jokowi meanders his way through a mess of clichés and caveats. He rubs his forehead and sighs. “I’m just one person,” he says, not quite complaining. “But everyone wants to hear my opinion on everything.”

Doing It His Way

For much of its history, Indonesia was ruled by a pair of men whose forces of personality united the archipelago: Sukarno, the nation’s first President after Indonesia achieved independence from the Dutch in 1945, and Suharto, the former general turned strongman. Jokowi’s entrance into politics was motivated less by a sense of destiny than by exasperation with Indonesia’s notorious red tape. “When I was a businessman, I saw every day how long it took for things to get done,” Jokowi tells TIME. “You must give an envelope [of money] or your application will sit for weeks or months, maybe even years. That’s why, when I became mayor of Solo, I made sure this changed.” When Jokowi was a kid, his family was so poor that they often could only afford aspirin for even serious ailments. “My family, we worked very hard for basic human needs, like food, education, health care,” he says. “That’s why I know, from my experience, that democracy must deliver a better life to the people.” Jokowi developed his appeal as a populist who didn’t allow gauzy rhetoric to overshadow hard policy. This was, after all, a man whose thesis at Gadjah Mada University was titled, “Study on Plywood Patterns in the Final Use in Surakarta Municipality.”

One September day, as the sun shone hot enough on the outskirts of Jakarta for men to shade their heads with giant banana leaves, Jokowi fulfilled some of his final duties as governor by attending the groundbreaking of a subsidized-housing development. It was the kind of urbanization project — shorn of the usual land grabs and sweetheart deals — that Jokowi had campaigned on introducing nationwide. As minor functionaries droned, a goat bleated and roosters crowed under cock-fighting baskets. Finally, the President-elect took the microphone and mumbled a few inconsequential words. A pile driver attacked the earth and broke ground, kicking up dust that blew in Jokowi’s face just as he and other officials were releasing doves into the air. Local residents rearranged their sarongs and wandered back to their shacks, pleased to have caught sight of Jokowi — if less than overwhelmed.

As Jokowi’s motorcade negotiated unpaved trails back toward Jakarta, the line of cars made an unscheduled stop at another subsidized-housing project. Jokowi remembered that this construction site was supposed to have been completed in eight months. It had now been 15 months — totally normal by elastic Indonesian standards, but not by the President-elect’s. Jokowi marched out of his car and cornered the site foreman, demanding answers. “They have failed,” Jokowi says later. “People are scared because I am always checking. I want people to be scared so they will listen to my instruction. If I learn that someone is not doing something…” He trails off and draws his finger across his throat.

The old guard, though, is still fighting. Prabowo, whose former troops were implicated in human-rights abuses during the Suharto era, narrowly lost the presidential election. But he left Jokowi an unpleasant gift. In September the country’s parliament, which is dominated by Prabowo’s Red and White Coalition, voted to abolish direct elections for governors, mayors and district heads. That might sound harmlessly technical, but it means the Indonesian voters will no longer be able to choose anti-Establishment figures like Jokowi who had bypassed the entrenched power structure. Instead, local legislatures will select future leaders. Democracy advocates are despairing and are intent on reversing the parliamentary decision. “Jokowi is the new face of the new democratic politics in Indonesia,” says Jamie Davidson, author of the forthcoming Indonesia’s Changing Political Economy: Governing the Roads. “But he only became popular through direct elections.”

Even without the rollback of direct elections, the hopes placed on Jokowi are crushing. “People’s expectations are so high,” he says, pointing to his narrow shoulders. “It’s dangerous for me. If I cannot realize what they want, what I promised, then it is a big problem.” Turning around a metropolis, even one as chaotic as Jakarta, is nothing compared with running a country of a quarter-billion people. Muryati Sudibyo, a cosmetics entrepreneur and Indonesia’s equivalent of Mary Kay, has supported Jokowi for a long time. But even she admits that he possesses no wahyu, the Indonesian term for the divine aura that envelops great leaders. “Coming from where he did, he dared not to dream, to be mayor, to be governor, to be President,” she says. “Even now, we cannot quite believe it.”

The Politics of Faith and Finance

Some Indonesians believe too much. Near the Al-Mukmin Islamic boarding school in Ngruki, on the outskirts of Solo, teenagers play soccer as dusk approaches. A few neighborhood kids watch the action but keep their distance from the school itself. “Jihad,” explains Timas, 15, in a single word of condemnation. Al-Mukmin, or Ngruki as it’s often known, has been a major finishing school for jihadist recruits. Its alumni and teachers have included the masterminds and foot soldiers of a terrorist campaign that has exploded bombs in Bali nightclubs and Jakarta luxury hotels, among other targets. The academy’s elderly co-founder, Abubakar Ba’asyir, is in jail for his role in founding and financing a jihadist training group, but his son still teaches at the school even though he voices extremist views.

Some of al-Mukmin’s 2,000-plus students express no interest in extremist politics. Faris says he’s at the Islamic boarding school at his father’s orders. The 17-year-old is no militant. He loves Taylor Swift and really wants to visit Ohio. “I have dreams, but I don’t know how to get there yet,” he says. “Jokowi gives me hope because he started from nothing too.” Which begs the question: Will Indonesia’s plugged-in youth — more than one-quarter of the population is under 14 years old — be lured by online jihadist messages or by the life story of Jokowi?

Since suicide bombers attacked Jakarta’s JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in 2009, Indonesia hasn’t suffered large-scale terrorism. In recent years Islamic political parties have lost support. “Whenever I went somewhere and told people I was from Solo, all they knew was Ngruki,” says Jokowi, who resuscitated his hometown’s handicraft industry. “Now, instead of thinking ‘criminal,’ people say, ‘Solo batik.'” Nevertheless, dozens of Indonesian militants have surfaced in the Middle East, fighting with the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria. For all of Indonesia’s success in snaring terrorists, and its effort to bring in moderate clerics to sway imprisoned radicals, it would only take one more bomb to shatter the idea that Indonesia has defeated its extremist threat.

Jokowi, a Muslim who quietly slips off to pray between meetings, has internalized Indonesia’s pluralism. In Solo his deputy mayor was Catholic. In Jakarta his No. 2 is also Christian — and ethnic Chinese to boot. After Suharto stepped down amid street protests and an economic crisis, anti-Chinese pogroms erupted as the minority group, which is perceived to be wealthier than others, took the brunt of public anger about economic inequity. Chinese-owned businesses and homes burned in Solo and throughout Indonesia. “The targeting of the Chinese community, it was allowed to happen,” says Sumartono Hadinoto, a Solo gypsum and aluminum magnate and Jokowi supporter, whose business was attacked. “The government didn’t do anything to stop it.”

Similar complaints now come from members of religious minorities, like Shi’ite Muslims and the Ahmadiyya sect, who have been attacked by Islamic hard-liners, even as government leaders pay lip service to freedom of faith. Last year the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace in Jakarta recorded 222 violations of religious liberties, more than double the number six years ago. Jokowi acknowledges some “problems.” But he also references Indonesia’s national motto: Unity in Diversity. “What has held Indonesia together is moderation and tolerance,” he says, “It’s our DNA.”

The gap between Indonesia’s promise and the reality on the ground applies to the economy too. With the global commodity boom seemingly ending, Indonesia will no longer be able to depend on raw exports. Jokowi wants to move the country up the value chain and has spoken of positioning Indonesia as “a global maritime nexus.” First he will have to lure back foreign investors, who have been spooked by the rhetoric of resource nationalism that animated presidential campaigning, including his. Says Douglas Ramage, chairman of the Trade and Investment Committee of the American Chamber of Commerce in Indonesia: “Locally, there’s a strong sense that Indonesia is not able to compete with foreign companies, and the response has been protectionism.”

Jokowi says his commitment to investing in infrastructure in a country where 15% of production cost is eaten by logistics, more than double the global norm, should please international business. He also touts his anticorruption efforts. Indonesia is ranked 114 out of 177 nations in a graft perceptions index by watchdog Transparency International, but Jokowi has made “anti korupsi” his mantra, and voters expect action from him. The President-elect has vowed to ease Indonesia off costly fuel subsidies and strengthen tax collection. “By showing that we can change, that we can follow the rules, then we will create a place where investors will want to come,” he says.

Much has been made of Jokowi’s positioning outside the traditional power elite. But he’s also the first businessman to become President of Indonesia, and his Vice President Jusuf Kalla also comes from an entrepreneurial background. “Jokowi doesn’t articulate or project that much,” says CSIS’s Bower. “But he’s got some of the biggest, baddest Indonesian politicians quaking in their shoes because he gets things done. That’s true power.”

All these challenges — economic, political, ethnic, religious — are pushed aside for the moment as Jokowi pulls up a plastic chair at his favorite Solo eatery, an open-air establishment that specializes in goat satay. The father of three speaks proudly of his eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, a 27-year-old who runs a local catering and wedding-planning business — a far cry from the major enterprises often controlled by other political progeny in Asia. As he waits for the skewers of meat to arrive, Jokowi reflexively wipes his plastic plate and cutlery with a thin tissue; it’s what one does at a warung, a local diner, not at the presidential palace. He dismisses Jakarta food as “too expensive, without real taste.” When he finally takes a bite of goat, Jokowi grins. “Isn’t this the best satay in the world?” he asks, except it’s not really a question. “When I am in Jakarta, I dream of eating this.”

It’s the most passionate he has been in the four days TIME spent with him, this disquisition on the pleasures of Solo spiced goat. A local lad now runs the fourth largest country in the world. Long may he dream.

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