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Indonesia gets a sprout with a new president

by Tom Plate

Congratulations and best wishes from all over the globe have been flying into Jakarta to Gov. Joko Widodo.

Because he’s moving on: In October he leaves that job to assume the presidency of the world’s fourth most populous nation. Not bad for a former furniture salesman!

And not bad for Indonesia! Whether or not “Jokowi” turns out to be a transformational leader, this may well be the country’s time in history to begin to emerge as a major global player.

After an arduous campaign against a tough, determined and extremely well-financed opponent, this personally modest but overtly reformist overnight political icon won by a margin of more than six percentage points.

In Indonesia they are calling this result “close.” But in America few presidential elections claim larger margins; and some (George W. Bush’s in 2000, John F. Kennedy in 1960) are decided by much smaller ones.

Nor does the size of victory presage the ensuing quality of the presidency: JFK’s was decidedly positive; George W.’s … no comment.

In these and all other U.S. examples that can be trotted out, the transition is always peaceful. No tanks escaped from the barn, though in 2000 the cannon roar of a lawsuit detonated at the U.S. Supreme Court.

In Indonesia, a lawsuit by the losing camp — led by a former, still-notorious military man — is in bad taste and poor sportsmanship; but it’s a far preferable reaction to the crude and unconstitutional option of a Thai-like coup.

Patience from the winning camp would be a virtue, too. In less than three months it assumes power. What it will do with the obvious mandate to improve Indonesia is the big question.

Jokowi himself is a bit of a magical mystery man. He offers little conventional charisma but his good-government persona conveys the positive aura that many people find to be so utterly winning.

Said to be incorruptible, this quietly skillful and pragmatic politician now faces a monumental challenge. He will need to show tremendous political leadership — and to receive widespread support and love from the Indonesian people. All fair-minded countrymen will want to offer him that.

This country of many thousands of islands has more the look of an abstract Jackson Pollock painting than a patterned geopolitical entity. It is both the proud child and birth defect of a debilitating Dutch colonization, with countless thorny public policy problems bubbling all over the place.

About 90 percent or so of its total population (about 250 million, compared with the United States’ 319 million and Russia’s 143 million) is Muslim. This makes Indonesia home to more people of the Islamic faith than any country in the world (Egypt, by comparison, has well less than half as many).

For the U.S., the challenge in its so-called “pivot to Asia” is to regard Jakarta as more than a culturally cute pit stop. To this effect — on this issue — U.S. diplomacy needs to put some distance between itself and its policy mate and close ally Australia.

Its prime minister sometimes doesn’t seem to get the notion that the world is now a 21st century deal. Alliances that look like white boys’ clubs will not win many hearts and minds in Indonesia (or anywhere else in Asia, actually).

The U.S. would have an ace card to play in Barack Obama, but the president is bogged down in the Middle East, the Ukraine and the tribal territories of John Boehner, the U.S. House Republican leader with the unenviable job of having to tom-tom with the tea party.

Sometimes the much-trumpeted American pivot to Asia seems no more than a misconceived policy divot.

This is why our often-dubbed “deputy sheriff” in the Asia-Pacific has a special role to play in order to best serve both its own national interest and those of the rest of the West.

Tony Abbott, Australia’s conservative prime minister, needs to re-invent himself as Jokowi’s best friend in the world. His government’s policy for dealing with Indonesian refugees must be seen as more humane, notwithstanding Australia’s nationalistic domestic politics.

Abbott must emerge as a regional and world leader of vision and polish, and leave the idiot nonsense to Neanderthals like Jim Saleam, leader of the Australia First Party, the right-wing group that makes the American tea party look daintily English.

My sincerest congratulations to the people of Indonesia. You have conducted a good process that has produced a successor president without excessive tumult or corruption. By U.S. standards, at least, your election drama played out quite normatively within the parameters of the internationally acceptable.

We pray the losers will not sour your nation’s considerable achievement with spoilsport tactics — or worse.

America has survived bad presidents and thrived with good ones. Jokowi may prove extraordinary or he may prove not — one just doesn’t know. What one does know is that he is the clear choice of the Indonesia electorate under its system of direct election.

For that, he deserves considerable respect and a decent “political honeymoon” — a generous amount of time to pick a proper Cabinet, put out his policies and get his feet planted firmly in the country’s tricky political soil.

Any miracles he can produce surely won’t make their appearance overnight. But the cheap and dreary criticism, of course, will. That’s real political life in this all too messed-up world.

Tom Plate, author of the forthcoming book “In the Middle of China’s Future” (Marshall Cavendish), is the distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University.

  • phu

    I can certainly see this being the start of something different (and hopefully better) for Indonesia, but to suggest that electing a furniture salesman with no experience in international politics could mean it’s Indonesia’s “time in history to begin to emerge as a major global player” is ridiculous hyperbole.

    Having been democratically elected does not mean he “deserves considerable respect.” He has been selected to fill an important public service role, and any respect (or disrespect) he might deserve will only be apparent once we start to see what he’ll actually do once in office and how well he does it. The author loves to cite American examples, so it should be very obvious that trusting campaign promises is almost always a losing proposition.

    “Cheap and dreary criticism” will certainly come, as it always does. I just hope the author is not labeling all criticism “cheap and dreary:” This man enters his new post with a clean slate as far as the position goes. I’m sure he’ll earn both praise and criticism in measures fair and unfair; only time, not optimism, can tell how much of each he deserves.