On a recent trip to Jakarta, I experienced firsthand what an infrastructure bottleneck feels like. My driver told me the city is only third in global traffic-jam rankings, trailing Mexico City and New Delhi, but what was a 40-minute ride when I lived there in the mid-1980s took a dispiriting 2½ hours. It’s not exactly the image evoked by the current nation-branding campaign: “Remarkable Indonesia.”

As we crept along the highway, I learned that the congestion that day was due to street protests by factory workers calling for a 50 percent raise from their current $220 monthly wage.

Sharp inflation has seriously reduced purchasing power following the government’s decision earlier this year to slash fuel subsidies. Nonetheless, in the end the factory workers only got an 11 percent raise from Jakarta’s popular Gov. Joko Widodo, known as “Jokowi,” who is widely expected to become Indonesia’s next president after the 2014 elections.

Under pressure from employers, Jokowi burnished his credentials as a pragmatic reformer, thus ensuring that Indonesian factory wages will remain about half those in China.

The government is eager to keep that cost advantage to attract investments, but the nation’s creaking infrastructure is a bigger impediment. A major part of the China success story is due to a massive modernization of its infrastructure — roads, railways and ports — that has eliminated many of the headaches associated with delayed deliveries.

Japanese companies are coming to the belated rescue in the form of a major infrastructure project in metro Jakarta, and have broken ground on a monorail that will hopefully ease road congestion when it is completed by 2020 or so. Officials have talked about this project for at least two decades, so it is good to see Jokowi finally getting it going.

People who know Jokowi say he is keen to run, but he acts reluctant in public because he needs the backing of Megawati Sukarnoputri, the president from 2001-04, who leads the Indonesian Democratic Party to which he belongs. He knows he has to indulge her strong sense of entitlement as the daughter of the nation’s founding father, Sukarno.

However, Megawati’s advisers warn her that if she backs Jokowi he will take over the party and sideline her. That’s no doubt true, but Jokowi, 52, is appealing to her sense of duty as the “mother of the nation” to make way for the next generation of leaders. Though it’s a delicate balancing act, he is a shrewdly calculating populist and ambitious political reformer whose time has come.

But are Indonesia’s vested interests ready for him? Despite him cracking down on corruption in Jakarta, and clearly understanding the need to reduce poverty and yawning disparities, it is not clear whether Jokowi’s success at the local level will work on a national scale.

Taman Mini Park in southern Jakarta promotes Indonesia’s national-identity narrative, emphasizing “unity in diversity,” a Disneyfied version of the architectural and cultural mélange spread across the sprawling archipelago’s 33 provinces that are home to 240 million people. The park has a Potemkin village feel to it, and aside from those lured to its kid-oriented attractions, there are few visitors.

Near the Papua house there, I met a young Papuan woman who subverted the entire unity narrative by explaining, unbidden, exactly why Papuans are bitter and why they support the OPM guerilla movement for independence.

She asserted that Jakarta sees Papua, the western half of the island of New Guinea, as a big cash cow due to its abundant natural resources, and maintains a repressive security presence there that tends to be more destabilizing than not. She dismissed recent government initiatives to boost education, health, housing and self-government as mere window-dressing, and doesn’t think that Papuans will be fooled or coopted.

So at this site dedicated to portraying Indonesia’s carefully crafted national narrative, a voice of the dispossessed stridently disagreed.

During my trip, when I met Dewi Anwar Fortuna, a former foreign minister who is now assistant to Vice President Budiono, I asked her about prospects in Papua.

While acknowledging it will not be easy, she expressed optimism about the development and assimilation efforts being made by the government — and said she hopes that promoting higher education would soon lead to Papuans assuming positions of local administrative power. This, she said, would not be because they are Papuan, but because they would be the best-qualified for the job.

However, Fortuna deflected my suggestion of an East Timor solution — meaning a referendum about remaining part of Indonesia — and emphasized that progress has been difficult because of Papua’s endemic corruption. She explained that the key is capacity-building, autonomy and respect from Jakarta, and lamented that the government has not been deft in its public diplomacy.

On the way to my next interview I stopped in front of the Interior Ministry, where there was a small demonstration of Papuans, egged on by a burly megaphone-wielding guy in a Che Guevara T-shirt. The assembled police looked more bored than ominous.

Julius, one of the demonstrators, told me that Papuans are tired of being lied to and fleeced, dismissing what he sees as more empty promises from Jakarta. He and the other two-dozen activists opposed an administrative reorganization plan they see as a crafty way to divide and rule.

The history of Papuans’ disillusion with Indonesian rule is complex, but much of the distrust can be traced back to what locals regard as a dubious referendum in 1969 that involved tribal elders coerced or duped into agreeing to Indonesian sovereignty. This has been a source of dispute and conflict ever since.

Papua’s current political problems are not all Made in Jakarta. According to Sidney Jones, Papua’s administrative fragmentation is currently being driven by local elites “motivated by a search for status and spoils.” In her October 2013 report published by the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, Jones complicates the picture of victim and victimizer.

Although fragmentation was “once seen as a useful divide-and-rule tactic, it is now a gigantic headache for Jakarta,” Jones observes. The central-government incentives encourage the establishment of new administrative units because those units receive large grants and generate patronage jobs.

In addition, intensified political competition that results between local elites, regions and clans distracts from efforts to tackle Papua’s enormous socio-economic problems — while sowing seeds of violence. Jones argues that this entrenches poor governance and corruption, while the climate of disorder leads to excesses by the security forces, which also tap lucrative opportunities in protection services for foreign mining operations.

The consolidation of democracy in Indonesia since the end of authoritarian rule in 1998 is a major achievement, but making more of its enormous potential, and spreading the fruits more widely, depends on more vigorous leadership than has been evident over the past 15 years. Jokowi has raised hopes, but if he prevails in next year’s elections, can he overcome a dysfunctional system and deliver?

Jeff Kingston is the Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.