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Meet the New Leader of the Fourth-Largest Country in the World

11 minute read

The passenger sitting in 42K, deep in economy class, orders a cup of milk from the flight attendant, then leans against the window for a nap. Far below, as Garuda Indonesia Flight GA 226 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 the seventh President of Indonesia, a nation of 250 million people and a sleeping giant on the international stage. Jokowi’s election victory in July against Prabowo Subianto–a former general and political scion–symbolized the people’s triumph over a ruling clique that had long treated this resource-rich nation as a private fief. Perhaps that’s why the 53-year-old former carpenter conspicuously flies coach, a habit that irks some members of the presidential entourage. “I am not so important that I need a big seat in business class,” says Jokowi, who is just short of 5 ft. 10 in. “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, the Netherlands; and Cologne, Germany. Raised in a riverside shantytown in Solo (officially known as Surakarta), he had none of the advantages of birth or patronage. When he became Solo’s mayor in 2005, and then governor of Indonesia’s swarming, dysfunctional capital, Jakarta, seven years later, Jokowi rolled up his shirtsleeves, slashing the processing 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 popular 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.” The Jakarta-based analyst Philips Vermonte says half-jokingly that “Jokowi is the micromanager in chief.”

There is much to micromanage. While it’s been five years since there was 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 “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, chairman 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 1.15 million sq. mi., 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, 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 of 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, and 27% of Indonesians are on Facebook.

But for all its distinctions, Indonesia can seem invisible internationally. It rarely deploys its diplomatic weight, whether by standing up to China or positioning itself as a model of an emergent democracy. Indonesia is vast, but the country 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-elect, may be the ultimate proof of Indonesia’s political maturation, but like his public, he still prefers to look inward. As he prepped for his inauguration, the President-elect 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 fast. There’s the South China Sea, the vast maritime highway that China is claiming aggressively despite the competing claims of six other governments, including Jakarta. There’s also climate change. Thanks chiefly to having 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 seawater that could come with rising temperatures.

Faced with these questions and more, Jokowi meanders his way through a mess of clichés and caveats. Finally 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

Perhaps Jokowi shouldn’t be surprised. Indonesians are accustomed to dominant leaders. 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 secured its independence from the Dutch in 1945, and Suharto, the former general turned strongman. But Jokowi’s entrance into politics was motivated less by a sense of destiny and more 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 often they could afford only aspirin for 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.”

That lack of pretense was on display one recent September day, as the sun shone hot enough on the outskirts of Jakarta for men to shade their heads with giant banana leaves. Jokowi was fulfilling 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 promised to introduce nationwide during his campaign. As minor functionaries droned on, a goat bleated and roosters crowed under cockfighting 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 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. 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 that Indonesian voters will no longer be able to choose antiestablishment figures like Jokowi who could bypass the entrenched power structure. Instead, local legislatures will select future leaders. Democracy advocates in despair are intent on reversing the 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.”

The hopes placed on Jokowi can seem 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.

New Power Generation

Jokowi’s job is to close the gap between Indonesia’s promise and the reality on the ground. That applies to the economy most of all. 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 the presidential campaigns–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 costs get 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 the graft-perceptions index issued by watchdog Transparency International, but Jokowi has made “anti korupsi” his mantra. 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 political and military elite. But he’s also the first businessman to become President of Indonesia. “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.”

Every type of challenge–economic, political, ethnic, religious–is 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. 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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