The Jakarta Post
The media outlets have been abuzz with talk of Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo's prospect of becoming Indonesia's next president next year. In the past few months, Jokowi, as the governor is affectionately called, has topped all major popularity surveys, outpolling other presidential hopefuls.
In Indonesia's increasingly personalized politics, Jokowi's popularity gave a big boost to the Indonesian Democratic Party Struggle (PDI-P), which supported his rise, giving it an early advantage ahead of the legislative election in April. In public and behind the scenes, other parties too are contemplating a move to endorse him, as expected by the ever-shifting nature of the country's realpolitik.
One only has to take a look at how Jokowi can cause an outpour of adoration from citizens during his trademark blusukan or unannounced visits, to Jakarta's slums or wet markets, or at the passionate discussions generated in social media about his administration's achievements (as well as his passion for rock and roll) to know that he is the candidate most connected to everyday people.
There is widespread sentiment that he is the country's only hope out of the likely presidential contenders ' an assemblage made up so far of largely old faces in the political scene, including former president Megawati Soekarnoputri, former Army general Prabowo Subianto, former vice president Jusuf Kalla, retired military commander Wiranto and business tycoon Aburizal Bakrie.
Even among those less supportive of Jokowi entering the presidential fray, there is a sense that they believe he should be given the chance to 'fix' Jakarta first before going on to a bigger stage.
No other single politician has received as much respect, trust and adoration in post-Soeharto Indonesia as Jokowi has.
Without any major surprises that might seriously dent his reputation or undermine his chances to run, he is set to be the most electable politician in next year's presidential election.
It is easy to dismiss the adulation as a reflection of the public's unrealistic, bordering on messianic, expectation that is bound to turn into disappointment, the same way voters who harbored high hopes for Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in the last two elections have been largely dissatisfied by his leadership since then.
But, if anything, the Jokowi phenomenon highlights a growing political disenchantment among Indonesians. Since 1999, the country's first democratically held election after 1959, there has been a steady drop in voter turnout.
In 2004, Indonesia held its first direct presidential election, a game changer that has consequently sent electoral costs through the roof. High-cost politics put a financial strain on parties, causing them to embrace moneyed new politicians such as controversial businessman Bakrie or, in the case of Wiranto's Hanura Party, Hary Tanosoedibjo. Worse, it intensifies the temptation for the parties to seek funding through graft in the legislative and executive branches of power.
Corruption aside, the parties' election-oriented shortsightedness have prevented them from building coherent programs crucial for their long-term development and sustainability, exposing themselves to the danger of becoming even more irrelevant among voters. Some scholars have seen this as the paradox in Indonesian democracy: that the strengthening of the party system has not led to the strengthening of the parties themselves.
One glaring example is the Democratic Party, co-founded by Yudhoyono to win his 2004 presidential bid. Having won the 2009 legislative election by riding on the incumbent president's electability, the Democratic Party has since become the center of a series of high-profile corruption cases.
To stay relevant, they are currently conducting a convention to select a presidential nominee, inviting a number of political, business and social figures, many of whom are party outsiders.
Similarly on the wane is the Golkar Party. Its nomination of chairman Bakrie as its presidential candidate early in the game has further eroded its popularity and is potentially deepening its internal rifts.
No one has been hurt harder by Jokowi's prominence, however, than Prabowo, who founded the Gerindra Party to support his presidential bid. Before Jokowi entered the fray, Prabowo was enjoying an early lead in public polling, owing to his increasing visibility, the image he crafted as a decisive leader in contrast to Yudhoyono, and his ties to grassroots organizations. He is also banking on the Indonesian voters' capacity to overlook his alleged human rights abuse in late 1990s.
If half of the surveys are to be trusted, Indonesians prefer a political outsider as their next leader, which they found in Jokowi, a furniture businessman who became the mayor of Surakarta, Central Java, before winning Jakarta's gubernatorial election last year.
Despite the media hype, the PDI-P has yet to announce its presidential candidate, and Jokowi himself has remained coy, stressing that he would comply with whatever party leader Megawati ordered him to do. It is an astute move to not appear too eager in the often-fractious climate of the party's internal politics.
Having Jokowi on its team has given the PDI-P a trump card in both the legislative and presidential elections next year, but in the end, the power rests on the Indonesian voters, who appear to have grown more rational with their choices.
This is also an argument made by political scientist Saiful Mujani and Indonesianist R William Liddle in their paper 'Voters and the New Indonesian Democracy' in the book Problems of Democratization in Indonesia. Based on their 2009 surveys, they identified economic growth, general prosperity, national unity, education and rule of law among the top priorities of voters. To achieve these goals, voters turned to individual leaders rather than political parties, setting standards for leaders who include personal integrity, social empathy and professional competence.
Since they came to power, the governor and his deputy, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, have made a lot more progress than their predecessors. They have executed some programs, some at the risk of being politically unpopular, including relocating street vendors in the notorious textile district of Tanah Abang, reviving the Mass Rapid Transportation (MRT) project and making the appointment process of district and subdistrict heads in Jakarta more transparent as part of their efforts to improve public services.
Jokowi's down-to-earth personality and his untainted political association might be factors boosting his appeal, but without his perceived integrity and emphatic leadership, he would have never received such massive public approval.
He has proven that at its best, Indonesia's decentralized politics, though still flawed with thriving corruption and occasional violence, can promote the rise of local leaders with little political backing but with good track records.
Indonesian politicos may gain a lot from learning from the Jokowi phenomenon, that voters have become increasingly fed up with party politics' business-as-usual approach, and are increasingly channeling their aspirations on those outside this sphere whom they find trustworthy. This may be the best news to come from Indonesian politics in a while.
The writer is a freelance writer/editor/language consultant.
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