It has been something of a deflating week for wildly popular Jakarta governor Joko Widodo (affectionately known as Jokowi), and his somewhat less popular Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, which appears to have significantly underperformed expectations—at least according to unofficial tallies—in Wednesday’s legislative elections.
For some observers, the underwhelming performance of the PDI-P on Wednesday was not a surprise, given that Widodo’s nomination as the party’s presidential candidate was left to the last minute, after a protracted period of coy reticence and dithering by party chair Megawati Sukarnoputri. That left the party with little time to promote the candidate, according to its national campaign manager. A noticeable lack of warmth between Megawati and her star candidate did not help. With rumors of infighting, both Widodo and the PDI-P clearly have some thinking to do before the July presidential election.
Nonetheless, even if it is with the help of coalitions, the Indonesian presidency is still Widodo’s to lose. And this owes largely to Indonesia’s democratized and decentralized post-Reformasi landscape. Following the momentous collapse of Suharto’s authoritarian New Order, Indonesia dove headlong into an unprecedented experimentation with democratization and decentralization. A decade and a half later, those initial efforts have paid off. As the world’s third largest democracy, the country now directly selects all its leaders from local district heads right up to the presidential level in a popular vote. The nomination of Widodo, once a small-time furniture entrepreneur in Solo, as presidential candidate of the PDI-P is but one of many testaments to the significant inroads democracy has made in Indonesia.
This impressive transition from centralized authoritarianism to decentralized democracy began under extraordinarily parlous conditions. With its economy teetering on the edge of collapse after the Asian Financial Crisis, Indonesia was desperately fighting for survival, as separatism, Islamism, and communal unrest threatened to tear the nation asunder.
Yet even in the midst of these crises, Indonesia began to reform. Almost miraculously, it weathered the storm with little causalities and the nation intact. A few years into Reformasi, Indonesia was being lauded as a regional success story for democracy. By the end of 2009, it had witnessed three separate fair and free general elections. Many of the potential spoilers to democracy had by then either lost momentum or been accommodated. With a series of neoliberal reforms, Indonesia enjoyed an unprecedented economic boom. Censorship laws were eased significantly, and civil society flourished. Indonesians had real reason to be optimistic, especially when their country was admitted into the prestigious Group of 20 (G20) nation, a high-water mark for Indonesia’s international recognition. There was talk of a “rising Indonesia” and “demographic dividends.”
Somewhere along the way, however, the democratization of Indonesia stalled. Criticisms surfaced of a democratic entity losing steam. Observers pointed to a “procedural democracy” stymied by collusion, patronage and patrimonialism. Despite almost breakneck advancements during the early phases of Reformasi, democracy in Indonesia seemed to be in a cul-de-sac.
Yet a parallel process was underway: a nascent decentralization, which was producing a substantial transfer of autonomy and resources directly to the district level. In 2005, the heads of each district level, including governors, regencies and mayors, were elected by popular vote for the first time. Widodo, then a budding entrepreneur and chairman of the Solo branch of the Furniture Association of Indonesia, emerged into the political limelight as mayor of Solo after being talent-scouted by the PDI-P.
Together with his deputy F.X. Hadi Rudiatmo, Widodo immediately set about transforming the city of Solo under the slogan “Solo: The Spirit of Java.” His rebranding efforts were an enormous success, and brought him national recognition. By 2008, Widodo was being shortlisted by Tempo magazine as one of the “Top 10 Indonesian Mayors of 2008.” A little over a year later, the city of Solo won the Indonesia Tourism Award as best travel destination in Indonesia for culture and heritage. Widodo began to develop an international profile, winning third place in the World Mayor Prize in 2012, and then being selected as one of “The Leading Global Thinkers of 2013” by Foreign Policy.
Riding this whirlwind of publicity and success, Widodo entered the Jakarta gubernatorial elections in mid 2012, along with his Chinese-Indonesian counterpart Basuki Cahaya Purnama (aka “Ahok”). The Widodo-Ahok team would emerge victorious after the second round of voting. This success catapulted Widodo to new level of acclaim. Almost overnight, Widodo and his signature blusukan visits (unannounced informal visits to constituencies and grassroots) became household names. That overwhelming popularity left the PDI-P with no alternative but to name Widodo as its presidential candidate.
Widodo’s astonishing rise is a good reflection of the current state of democratization in Indonesia. Critics may lambast the incremental consolidation of democracy in Indonesia over the past few years, but they fail to see the silver lining: Popular votes and increased autonomy at the local level have yielded a new breed of mayors and governors who are distinguishing themselves as effective and popular leaders. More often than not, these new leaders share a common touch with the common man. Contrary to the officious, high-handed styles of previous officials, a new class of “culture-carriers” of good governance has emerged.
In his book If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities, political theorist Benjamin Barber boldly champions the dawn of a new standard in leadership found in the management of a city and the role of the mayor. He argues that cities are less divided, more practical and superior incubators of benign social change. Their caretakers—the mayors—are therefore prime candidates for exercising exemplar and innovative leadership. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg famously proclaimed that mayors are “pragmatists, not partisans; innovators, not ideologues.” In many cases, that are able to “put aside ideology, ethnicity and religion” for the sake of the greater good.
The twin effects of democratization and decentralization in Indonesia has opened up pathways for mayors and governors to excel. Widodo’s success is one example, but there are others: Tri Rismaharini (mayor of Surabaya), Ridwan Kamil (mayor of Bandung) and Ganjar Pranowo (governor of Central Java). They all personify a similar “can-do” mentality and pragmatism.
Widodo’s popularity also has the potential to rejuvenate the Indonesian public’s confidence in the democratic process. Faced with a familiar retinue of business oligarchs, military generals and veteran politico figures, Widodo’s emergence not only provides a welcome relief to voters, it also challenges the balance to power once enjoyed only by those who had a certain means and pedigree. While the verdict is still out on whether the “Widodo effect” will be triumphant at the national level, he has proven to all in Indonesia that one can indeed become successful at the local level without recourse to corruption or manipulation. His quintessentially “folksy” yet decisive style of leadership has also allowed the Indonesian people a glimpse of an alternative approach to politics that had long been monopolized either by iron fists or velvet gloves.
Certainly, democracy in Indonesia could do with less oligarchic patrimonialism. While that hurdle has yet to be surmounted, Widodo’s presidential candidacy is decidedly a step in the right direction. Some may argue that Widodo owes his success to Megawati and the Sukarno family. Perhaps the next breakthrough for democracy in Indonesia will be to show that it does not.
Jonathan Chen is an Associate Research Fellow in the Indonesia Programme of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. Emirza Adi Syailendra is a Research Analyst at the Indonesia Programme and a current MSc (Strategic Studies) student under the Research Analyst Award at RSIS.