In July, Joko Widodo, universally known as Jokowi, won a decisive victory in Indonesia’s presidential elections. Even before assuming office in October, he faces extravagant expectations in a nation that has endured mercurial (Sukarno), repressive (Suharto) and feckless (B.J. Habibie, Abdurrahman Wahid, Megawati Sukarnoputri and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono) leaders since gaining independence from ruinous Dutch colonial rule.
In a nation with a messianic streak, Jokowi inspires enthusiasm across the spectrum, from the poor and marginalized to businessmen, secularists and moderate Muslims who all invest high hopes in him. He is bound to disappoint, not because he lacks the courage of his convictions, but because so many powerful players have so much to lose if he succeeds.
With Jokowi enjoying a massive lead in public opinion polls the elections were supposed to be a landslide, but his rival Prabowo Subianto hired U.S. Republican political strategists who crafted a nasty campaign of innuendo and false accusations (wasn’t Jokowi really born in Singapore?!) combined with lavish advertising and patriotic spectacles to make it a closely fought election. Prabowo contested the results, alleging massive fraud, but his appeal was rejected and the results stand, Jokowi having won 53 percent of the 140 million votes cast with a stellar turnout of about 75 percent in this nation of nearly 255 million.
Prabowo, a former military officer and son-in-law of Suharto (who ruled 1967-98), was implicated in the killing of students and instigating anti-Chinese rioting in 1998, but offset this sordid record by projecting a tough, can-do image that appealed to voters. He also played the Islamic card, wooing the Islamic parties by suggesting that Jokowi is soft on Christians and Shiites in a nation dominated by Sunnis. Although this cynical appeal to chauvinist sentiments may have helped Prabowo, voters ratified Indonesia’s secular identity.
Professor Jun Honna of Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan’s leading Indonesian political expert, believes this poll in particular was a watershed event.
“Jokowi’s election is significant in eliminating a powerful legacy of Suharto’s authoritarianism presented by Prabowo, and is the first time in Indonesia’s history that an ordinary person has become president,” he says.
Fifteen years ago, as Indonesia shrugged off three decades of military rule, few observers would have predicted it evolving so rapidly into the most robust democracy in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This successful election in Asia’s second-largest democracy, pulled off in a sprawling archipelago that is home to the world’s largest Muslim population, discredits the notion that democracy and Islam are incompatible. In fact, Indonesian democratic institutions emerged with flying colors in a region where democracy is often dysfunctional and marred by fraud and violence. In contrast, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Myanmar and Cambodia have never experienced a transfer of power to the political opposition, while Laos and Vietnam have one-party communist rule. Thailand and the Philippines are the only other ASEAN members that have experienced a democratic handover of power to the political opposition, but Indonesia’s elections are relatively clean and peaceful and political jousting is not quite so vindictive. In the Philippines, the last two presidents had their predecessors arrested, while in Thailand the military seized power earlier this year and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra faces prison if he returns.
Meanwhile, many Malaysians believe their government stole the last election while Myanmar’s leaders are guilty of democratic backsliding as they prepare for national elections in 2015.
Jokowi’s appeal is his crusade against corruption, but making the transition from mayor of a provincial town and governor of Jakarta to the nation’s chief executive will be a daunting challenge.
Pundits harp on about Jokowi’s lack of foreign-policy expertise, but this is not a great concern. China has become ASEAN’s bete noire, but it is not an urgent threat. The rift with international mining firms over nationalist economic policies that sparked a steep drop in mining exports this year appears temporarily resolved, but bears watching. Perhaps his greatest security headache may be in dealing with repercussions from Islamic State’s success in Iraq and Syria and the potential for a revival of terrorism at home.
Jokowi promises to slash fuel subsidies to cut the budget deficit, but this could have nasty implications given that the impact will disproportionately affect lower-income households, which are his political base. Aside from expediting approvals of pending infrastructure projects, he also highlights the need to promote access to health and educational services.
“Policies such as health care and free education can be implemented without strong resistance from the elite in the parliament, because these are the issues which do not disturb the existing rent-seeking practice of the party elite,” says Honna, who predicts that “some bureaucratic reforms are also very likely, such as e-procurement, e-budgeting, and the auctioning of strategic posts in the bureaucracy in the name of reform.”
The problem for Jokowi is that he faces excessive expectations.
“His biggest challenge is corruption,” Honna says. “He has promised to do so but his power base in political institutions is weak. He is not even a party leader. “It is very likely that his anti-corruption initiative will be blocked not only by the opposition in the parliament, but also within the coalition and within his own party.”
Indeed, parliament sneakily passed a law in July on the day of the presidential elections that makes it extraordinarily difficult to investigate its members for corruption by requiring any such probe get parliamentary approval before proceeding. Jokowi has moved to get the Supreme Court to invalidate this law.
Failure to make visible progress on corruption could undermine Jokowi’s popularity and thereby embolden his opponents.
Yet there is so much corruption in Indonesia that it won’t be hard to make some dramatic examples of fat cats. If he is able to tackle corruption related to the military — a no-go zone in Indonesia — then it will represent more than political theater.
According to Australia National University’s Ariel Heryanto, there are two areas in which Jokowi could shine: promoting religious tolerance and hitting the reset button on Jakarta’s failed policies toward Papua, the turbulent province where successive governments have failed to win local trust. The previous Yudhoyono administration averted its eyes from escalating attacks on religious minorities, but Heryanto believes Jokowi has the mandate to help curb such abuses.
Papuan leaders supported Jokowi’s presidential bid so prospects are good for more dialogue to address the desire for greater autonomy and less of a heavy-handed security presence.
“But local corruption and conflict are deeply rooted in Papua, so the national initiative seems to have obvious limitations,” Honna says. “Thus no big change can be expected.”
This may also be the case overall, as Jokowi strives to promote a game-changing agenda in the face of stiff opposition.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.