Opinion

The Jokowi factor and the
future of Indonesia’s
democracy

“It’s Jokowi, stupid, not Prabowo!” one friend replied, paraphrasing Bill Clinton’s famous slogan, to a colleague who had argued that it was the Prabowo factor — the supposedly leading candidate for the 2014 presidential elections — that pushed Joko “Jokowi” Widodo toward a surprising victory in the first round of the Jakarta gubernatorial election
last July.

So, did Jokowi win because of Prabowo, or has Prabowo’s star risen thanks to Jokowi? The issue is important for 2014. The Jokowi-Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama ticket not only demonstrated its strength (43 percent) — much to the surprise of pollsters — it may have significant impact at a national level.

A few things need to be noted. First, the great surprise at Jokowi’s victory suggests we have forgotten that Indonesia has demonstrated the potential for the emergence of charismatic, talented and populist leaders since the 1920s. Examples abound; H.O.S. Tjokroaminoto, Tan Malaka, Sukarno. In the early years of independence, these kinds of leaders acted as “solidarity makers” in contrast to regimented bureaucrats or “administrators”.

And in times of crisis they thrive. Even the decades-long New Order authoritarian regime could not prevent the emergence of daring figures like Nahdlatul Ulama leader Subchan Z.E., who was mysteriously found dead in the early 1970s and Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid, who was forced to play Soeharto’s game until Soeharto himself was forced to resign.

This is not to unduly equate Jokowi with any past figures. The point is that the decades of Soeharto’s “repressive stability” were deceptive; creating a false consciousness that ignores Indonesia’s leadership potential. Having been stifled by the iron fist many have been surprised to see a leader propping up.

Second, the dispute about whether Muslims should accept a leader from a different faith (referring to Jokowi’s alleged, and Ahok’s actual, Christian faith), provoked by popular singer Rhoma Irama and silently acquiesced in by Governor Fauzi “Foke” Bowo shows how easy it is to play the sectarian card.

But, when a minister and leading politicians followed suit the public response changed from mute to anger. That tactic proved counterproductive despite the singer’s melodramatic tears in public.

This points to the apparent modern perspective of most Jakartans; more sensitive to issues other than religious sentiments. One test of this will be whether the support of Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), Jakarta’s second-biggest party, for Foke will make a difference in the second round on Sept. 20. Another will be whether recent terrorism-related incidents in Jokowi’s city, Surakarta, will change the perceptions of the Jakarta electorate, probably not.

Third, the Jokowi phenomenon is not just a semblance of the past. It reflects the capital’s conditions today. Jakarta, with pluriform, highly educated yet conservative layers and a growing lower-middle class, needs a new leader as the incumbent governor is seen as having achieved little to resolve the most glaring daily problems.

To be fair, Foke has built new infrastructure, for example to fight floods, but that is not exactly very visible to most people. The adage “Anyone But Foke” (Asal Jangan Foke) and Jokowi’s amiable approach have been fatal for Foke as the latter is viewed as relying on a powerful elite, supported as he is by groups of property developers. Such an image — an arrogant chief — seemed confirmed when he called on victims of a fire who might have considered voting for Jokowi to move to Solo.

Foke has thus helped create conditions for a populist leader to emerge. Ironically, it was Jokowi’s political party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), who had always supported Foke in the past. So it was last June that Prabowo came to support Jokowi-Ahok, and won over PDI-P chairwoman Megawati Soekarnoputri’s as she saw the chance for herself to be yet again a presidential hopeful.

Sources at the PDI-P, however, say this is not without risks. Megawati, whose popularity outside the party seems waning, should realize that “the hegemony of Sukarno family may soon end” as new leaders may emerge with better prospects than her daughter, Puan Maharani. Even if chosen as new governor, Jokowi may not be helpful.

But it is argued that if Megawati decides to resign, Jokowi, or Prabowo, could eventually ensure a state role — a kingmaker in 2014? — as an honorable swansong to her political carrier.

Prabowo’s predicament is even more difficult. It remains to be seen whether his popularity will enable Great Indonesian Movement (Gerindra) to ensure his 2014 presidential bid. He may profit from Megawati’s dilemma if the latter resigns, but what if the latter chooses Jokowi to be the party’s presidential candidate?

Moreover, Prabowo cannot continue to ignore his past history as he remains seriously implicated in a number of atrocities in Timor Leste, Aceh and the May 1998 riots. Hence, he systematically attempted to forge a sort of reconciliation — with some financial assistance in lieu of pledges of political support — first, with Timor Leste (a diplomatic asset), then with former GAM rebel leaders who lead the province (a symbol of national unity) and now with Ahok (a symbol of the May 1998 victims) as Jokowi’s partner. One wonders if Papuan leaders will be next.

Yet, what he essentially needs to do — and has presumably been doing — is to attract substantial support from PDI-P rank and file in order to ensure his own presidential bid. A fierce competition with Megawati and her party will naturally make it impossible for him to persuade her to retire.

In comparison, Jokowi has come relatively out of the blue. His background as a local businessman is similar to many politicians today and he has a good track record as a local mayor. His success story shows clever methods in persuading people, but he lacks organizational experience at the grassroots level and few know much about his plans, policies and concepts other than the human approach.  

Populist leaders tend to ignore the consequences of growing social class divisions as global capitalist development penetrates deeper. Such leaders, according Peter Worsley’s (1973) study of, among others, Sukarno and the Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah, may be able to forge national unity, but at the same time they have to struggle even harder to cope with the growing consequences of such development — in which both Sukarno and Nkrumah, amid the tensions of Cold War, failed.

With the Cold War gone, populist leaders now have a better chance. Yet to be attractive and to thrive, they need to address public discontent. Such feelings are now widespread and effectively summed up by the Indonesian word: kebablasan (gone too far).

Today everywhere we see discontent erupting in sectarian violence (Sampang is the latest example). Even liberal and educated elites have become wary of our kebablasan democracy, continuing uncertainty and a president who is indecisive.

Jakarta is not Indonesia, where radicals and fanatics in the regions can act badly without public resistance. And promises of strong leadership plus explosive economic growth, as Prabowo, whose ideal is China’s authoritarian Deng Xiao-ping, pledged in Singapore recently, can be misleading.  

These are not ingredients for a better future. If these conditions remain into the foreseeable future the fear will be that while the economy booms our political prospects will simply muddle along.

The writer is a journalist.

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