Opinion

Jokowi’s political rhetoric

The current Surakarta/Solo mayor, Joko Widodo (aka Jokowi), has made me miss Solo, my hometown. Tired of dubious political rhetoric that only makes one cynical (e.g., the rate of poverty decreased in Indonesia in 2011 — really? Is the wealth evenly distributed?), I prefer political rhetoric that actually translates into real action.

Rhetoric, especially in politics, is usually associated with “manipulative speech or writing”, as described by Jack Selzer in his work on rhetorical analysis. However, this is only part of a larger picture of rhetoric as a discipline — a study that attempts to decipher someone’s (or a group of people’s) ways of persuading an
intended audience.

Ways of making persuasive arguments are not restricted to verbal language. Selzer further argues that people make arguments multimodally, e.g., through “photos … images, dance, popular songs … hair styles, clothing,” etc. A woman undertaking cosmetic surgery so as to look like “a living Barbie doll” highlights her argument that echoes a certain cultural demand on appearing eternally beautiful.

I have heard that Jokowi does not hesitate to ride his bike among the crowds on Sunday mornings, when the main road (Jl. Slamet Riyadi) is closed to motor vehicles, with only a small security escort. That’s a persuasive non-verbal argument: acting out merakyat (or mingling with the people in a humble manner), which has become the essence of his leadership.

Following his landslide re-election victory for his second term of office, Jokowi dared to challenge the Central Java governor’s plan to build a shopping center on the site of the former Saripetojo ice factory. Jokowi was backed up by many wong cilik (poor people or small traders) whose businesses would be threatened by the plan, regardless of the contention that the area where the factory is located “ha[s] been designated as a trade region” (The Jakarta Post, June 25, 2011).

Recently, accompanied by hundreds of Surakarta residents, Jokowi verbally confronted PT PLN’s policy of “imposing a mass blackout of the street lamps” on Dec. 23, 2011 (The Jakarta Post, Jan. 4, 2012) by paying Rp 8.9 billion (US$97,100) in cash at the PLN office. Paying cash! What non-verbal rhetoric! He could have paid that amount in secret with his or the city administration’s debit card through an ATM or e-banking. Paying cash in (and by the) public epitomizes popular resistance to a policy. And Jokowi blended in with the defiant people under his leadership.

I believe Jokowi was fully aware of the city administration’s tardiness in paying its arrears to PLN for the city’s streetlights. However, in his (non-)verbal rhetoric, he has convinced me and hundreds of fellow Solo residents that public interest, especially when Christians in Solo were preparing for the Christmas celebrations, should be given a higher priority than PLN’s policy.

Another recent piece of rhetoric from Jokowi was his symbolic action in using an SUV produced by local vocational school students as his official vehicle. Again this was in confrontation with the Central Java governor, who this time blamed Jokowi for being “reckless” because the car had yet to be “certified as roadworthy” (The Jakarta Post, Jan. 3). His fellow mayor from Semarang also implied that Jokowi was “narcissistic” (Suara Merdeka, Jan. 5).

Regarding the governor’s criticisms, I think Jokowi’s rhetoric embodies a strategic and deliberate “recklessness”. Jokowi’s trust in the vocational school students’ product, the Kiat Esemka, a project supported by the Ministry of Education and Culture, seems to be more important than his own safety.

After all, Jokowi is not promoting the car to be used by other people or by the governor. If the car runs well and safely, then Jokowi himself constitutes the roadworthy certificate. If the car has problems, I believe the students will not hesitate to fix the car because, again I believe, they love their mayor.

I do not know if Jokowi is prone to being narcissistic or not, but it is better to have a mayor who is labeled as such than a corrupt one who does little or nothing for his citizens.

We can see that Jokowi has proved to most Solo citizens that, on the whole his rhetoric, conveyed in a number of ways, is favorable. He does not have to excessively assert verbally that he is merakyat in political campaigns before re-election, but he has shown that he has gained the people’s support, even when it comes to defying people with more money and power (e.g., the company assigned to demolish the Saripetojo ice factory), of higher political rank (e.g., the Central Java governor), or even fellow policy makers like those in PLN.

Jokowi’s merakyat rhetoric has worked well so far, but I do hope he will not stumble into arrogance, and thus be easily trapped by his political opponents.

Merakyat rhetoric does not merely comprise dead words, pronounced out loud during campaigns. The words can only conflate with, and speak louder through, real actions that can be felt as lived experiences by all people.

The writer is a recipient of a Fulbright-DIKTI scholarship and is doing his doctoral studies in Applied Linguistics at Arizona State University, Tempe, USA.

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