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Jokowi, the "Indonesian Obama," Is in a Presidential Nail-Biter

How did this supposedly transformational candidate let it get so close?


When Joko Widodo—a 53-year-old former furniture salesman and current governor of Jakarta—announced, in mid-March, that he was running to be Indonesia’s president, his actual election was treated as all but inevitable. Widodo—popularly known as Jokowi—was a new type of Indonesian politician, a media-savvy populist who mingled with the poor. As soon as Jokowi received his party’s permission to run, media immediately crowned him “Man of the Moment”; think tanks pronounced him “almost certain to win.” Early polls showed him ahead of his nearest rival, Prabowo Subianto, by more than 30 points. Kevin O’Rourke, the principal of PT Reformasi Info Sastra, a prominent political risk analysis firm focused on Indonesia, said, “Jokowi should win the Presidency with ease.” Political pundits iterated new ways to describe Jokowi’s meteoric rise in Indonesian politics. He was “the Jokowi phenomenon”; his aura was the “Jokowi Effect.” Andrew Thornley, elections program director for the Asia Foundation, reflecting back on March, told me, “Jokowi was almost mythical, then.” Such effusiveness, plus a manufactured controversy over Jokowi's religion and ethnicity, inspired predictable Obama comparisons in Western media.

When election day began early Wednesday, Jokowi appeared decidedly mortal. Polls consistently showed that the difference between Jokowi and his opponent, Prabowo, was within the margin of error. What had once been a meteoric rise looked likely to be a meteoric fall. Prabowo was the former head of Indonesia’s special forces under late-dictator Suharto and is widely accused of having attempted a 1998 coup. He has emerged from disgrace and developed into a formidable nationalist candidate. He has vast campaign resources and powerful supporters, though many worry about his statements indicating that, if elected, he would roll back crucial elements of Indonesia’s post-1998 democratic reforms. “The Black Campaign”—a sordid and well-funded smear campaign alleging Jokowi is a Chinese-descended Christian, not a Javanese Muslim—put Jokowi on the defensive, and his campaign organization has been too disorganized to respond effectively. With early results still coming in Wednesday, "quick counts" of representative samples have Jokowi maintaining a narrow lead over Prabowo. Jokowi’s campaign declared victory; Prabowo responded by also declaring victory, based on polling from two media outlets whose owners back his candidacy. The day ended uneasily, with both candidates having declared themselves the winner. Jokowi, who looked likely to win the presidential election in a landslide just a few months ago, now will have to brave two tense weeks before the country releases its official count. How did this supposedly transformational candidate let it get so close? 

Jokowi was a phenomenon new to Indonesian politics. A plain-speaking small businessman from central Java, he was elected mayor of Surakarta (Solo), a city of half a million, in 2005, and transformed it. Solo was plagued by congestion, in part because street traders crowded in the city center had refused to move. Instead of calling the police to move the traders, Jokowi visited the area frequently and developed an alternative covered market for the locals. Ferry Sutariamon, a Solo trader, said, “If you ask Jokowi the names of the traders here, he can tell you ... his approach is that he goes to the people, he asks what the problems are, and he solves those problems." Jokowi established universal healthcare for residents, and, emphasizing Solo’s deep Javanese history, transformed the city into a tourist destination. During his first run for Mayor he won a plurality with 37 percent of the vote. Five years later, he won again with 90 percent. 

According to Oskar Adityo, a Jakarta business consultant I spoke with, Indonesian politicians often adopt a pompous, “semi-militaristic” affect. Adityo has no connection to Solo, but like many Indonesians I spoke with, he followed Jokowi’s exploits there closely. “When he was mayor of Solo, I realized that this guy is different from other bureaucrats,” Adityo told me. I asked him what he thought was Jokowi’s most iconic achievement. “When you go to Solo now," he said, "you’ll see that when you apply for a business permit, it’s all computerized. Before him there was no mindset like that. Bureaucrats who tried to do what he did, they always failed to carry it out.” The reverence with which Indonesians treat these mundane-sounding achievements can seem almost comic to outsiders. But Indonesia is a developing country hampered by inefficient bureaucracy and extraordinary corruption. Jokowi was unimpeachably non-corrupt, and galvanized the local bureaucracy. His can-do spirit (punya gaye) and bottom-up approach made him enormously popular, and won him a slew of national and international good-governance awards. Pingkan Irwin, co-founder of Ayo Vote, a youth voter engagement initiative, told me, “He is seen as down to earth, humble, he visits the slums. There has not been anyone like him during our history.” Kevin Evans, a longtime Jakarta resident who runs Pemilu.Asia, a website focused on Indonesian politics, told me, “Jokowi proved that it is possible, as a local leader, to actually be effective.”

His image was steadily burnished by the media. In an interview with Australia’s "Inside Story," Jokowi said, “We go to the poor people, to the riverbank for example, and this is sexy for the media. If you interview in the office or shoot television footage in the office it is not sexy.” Television is the primary way that Indonesians get their news, and Jokowi skillfully made himself into a TV star.

In Indonesia, there is one city where emerging stars go to prove themselves. Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, is the country’s commercial, cultural, and political center. It has 10 million people, is one of the world’s most polluted cities, and is ringed by slums. It is the world’s largest city without a metro system, and suffers from major congestion. When Jokowi ended his second term as mayor of Solo early, in order to represent his party, PDI-P, in Jakarta’s 2012 gubernatorial elections, many were skeptical that his blusukan style of politics—of visiting people and collectively finding solutions for their problems—would work in a city 20 times the size of Solo.

And though he won his election handily, Jokowi was an odd fit for Jakarta. The Jakarta political elite tend to come from august Indonesian political families; Jokowi’s dad, by contrast, was in the furniture business. The local media called him a Ndeso—a Javanese redneck—and he still maintains his deep central Javanese accent. There was something of Mr. Smith goes to Washington in Jokowi’s attempt to tame Jakarta. He stuck with the same approach he had perfected in Solo, visiting government offices early in the morning to check that local bureaucrats were doing their job, and consulting with slum dwellers he wanted to move from flood-prone areas. Jokowi’s legend continued to grow. Though he has served as governor for only a year and a half, his style of politics was effective in Jakarta. He cleared congested areas and moved slum dwellers on the riverbanks to permanent housing elsewhere, allowing him to widen canals and lessen flooding. He has developed public transit for Jakarta. Evans said, “The MRT [Mass Rapid Transit], the idea’s been around for 25 years, my god, now it’s happening. Well that didn’t happen under anyone else. The thing that sustains his popularity is that he actually delivers. ”

In 2013, pollsters began including Jokowi on the list of potential presidential candidates. In late 2013, surveys recorded him with as much as 40 percent of the vote, with no other potential candidate approaching half that. Megawati Sukarnoputri, Indonesia’s first female president, was the chair of PDI-P. Though unpopular, she was believed to covet the party’s nomination for president herself. She delayed her decision about whether to select Jokowi until just before the April legislative elections. Finally, she brought Jokowi to visit the grave of her father, Sukarno—Indonesia’s first president—and announced that Jokowi would represent the PDI-P in the presidential elections. There was little question, at the time, that Jokowi would win.

The first shock came during the legislative elections in April. How PDI-P fared would be an early test of the power of the Jokowi Effect. Polls had shown PDI-P gaining over 30 percent of seats in the legislature if Jokowi was selected as the party’s presidential candidate. Instead, PDI-P won only 19 percent. Though the party became the largest party in Parliament, the vote was a major disappointment. Jokowi wasn’t on the ballot, but he had asked his supporters for a landslide legislative election, and had very little to show for it. Yohanes Sulaiman, a lecturer at the Indonesian National Defense University, wrote in a blog post at the time that Jokowi’s “aura of invincibility is broken.”

The disappointing results only increased the tension between Jokowi and Megawati. Megawati was worried that Jokowi was using the PDI-P institution as a vehicle for his personal political ambitions, and that she and her family were being sidelined. According to M. Taufiqurrahman, the national editor of the Jakarta Post, she responded by trying to have her daughter placed as Jokowi’s VP, a suggestion that Jokowi rejected.

Megawati is not a person to accept political marginalization quietly. She publicly lectured Jokowi, “I made you a presidential candidate. But you should remember that you are a party official, with a function of implementing the party’s programs and ideology.” Prabowo’s campaign naturally seized on this and similar comments, and has repeatedly accused Jokowi of being "controlled" politically. Prabowo plays off of Jokowi’s rustic image to argue to voters that as hardworking and well-meaning as Jokowi may be, he is ultimately Megawati’s puppet.

The campaign’s inefficiencies have made it difficult to respond to Obor Rakyat, a splashy, well-funded tabloid that purports to provide evidence that Jokowi is a Christian of Chinese descent. Jokowi is a Javanese Muslim, but the charges stick because he is proudly pluralist and many of his most prominent supporters are Chinese or Christian. The paper is most widely circulated in East Java, a key battleground area that Prabowo will probably need to take in order to win the election. Jokowi’s campaign has, by all accounts, responded sluggishly to the charges. Weeks after the allegations started appearing, Jokowi released his birth certificate, showing that he was born Muslim, in Indonesia. The Birther controversy has not died, in part because Jokowi and his campaign proxies respond to the charges with great restraint. Puan Maharani, Megawati’s daughter, and a PDI-P representative, said of the charges, “Jokowi’s racial and religious backgrounds are clear. He is Javanese and a Muslim. However, if he was not, so what?” It’s not clear that this was an effective response. Adityo told me that many of his friends—including “highly educated ones who studied abroad”—continue to quote from “second-rate news sources” in support of the allegations about Jokowi being Chinese and Christian.

Taufiqurrahman, of the Jakarta Post, sat down with me the day after the paper, for the first time in its history, released an editorial endorsing a candidate—Jokowi—for president. He worried that the democracy he had fought for, as a student activist in 1998, would be rolled back by a Prabowo victory. He said he began to learn about the Jokowi campaign’s ineffectiveness when he dispatched reporters to cover Jokowi and Prabowo campaign rallies. The reporters covering Prabowo were invariably met at the airport with air-conditioned busses and served catered meals. The reporters covering Jokowi often ended up stranded at the airport for days. 

Taufiqurrahman marveled at Jokowi’s change in fortunes. “It’s astounding, really. It doesn't make any sense. Three months ago Jokowi still had a 60 percent approval rating. Since then, Jokowi’s numbers have been down all the time.” I asked him to tell me the word that best summed up how he was feeling, a few days before the election. “I think the right word is despair,” he said.

This has been an incredibly dynamic campaign. Despite the partisanship of the media, and the Black Campaign, the election has featured five televised debates, and prompted serious discussion about the qualities that Indonesians want in their next president. The election has the same extravaganza qualities as American elections, with celebrities hosting concerts in favor of their preferred candidates, and legions of café patrons debating whether Jokowi could still win if he loses East Java, or which way North Sumatra will swing.

But there remains something dark about it. Gladys, an Indonesian of Chinese descent, was a child in 1998, when Prabowo made a speech blaming the Chinese-Indonesian community for Indonesia’s troubles, and Chinese-Indonesian homes in Jakarta were ransacked. She told me about how, in 1998, her mother had purchased dark foundation, so that her complexion would appear more ethnically Indonesian. Gladys wondered whether, if Prabowo won, sooner or later, she would also have to wear make-up to avoid looking too Chinese.

Fears about a Prabowo presidency are based on his past statements and actions, but also promises he has made during the campaign. Dave McRae, senior research fellow at the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne, worried that Prabowo would unwind Indonesia’s democracy. In an e-mail, McRae said Prabowo “has clearly stated his opposition to the key pillars of democracy. He opposes direct elections as costly and out of step with Indonesian culture, whereas they are the main way elected officials, the president included, are held accountable by the public in Indonesia. … There is no guarantee Prabowo would be able to achieve these changes if elected, but the fact that he is saying these things openly is cause for great concern, and hasn't received the scrutiny it merits within Indonesia.”

I spoke with retired General Subagyo Hadi Siswoyo, former Army chief of staff, and chair of DKP, the military committee that recommended Prabowo’s dismissal from the Army for his role in the 1998 kidnapping of young democracy activists. Siswoyo said, “Much of the military today may be behind Prabowo, but the generals who know how insubordinate he was—the generals with four stars—they could never support Prabowo. He is too unpredictable.”

The race’s tightness means there is a greater risk of electoral violence, from supporters of both candidates. Andreas Harsono, an Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch, told me he worried “that different polls will show different vote counts and that in the next 24 hours after the election either one or two will claim to be the winner. The margin of error is going to be bigger than the difference [in vote total].” There is a two-week period between when the vote is held and the central election commission announces the winner. It could be a messy 21 days. Taufiqurrahman, the Jakarta Post editor, said, “If the margin is within 2 or 3 percent, this is going to be a tinderbox for conflict.”

He added, “We wouldn’t be worrying about any of this if Jokowi had run a better campaign.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Andreas Harsono's last name. And it will be two weeks, not three, before the official results are announced.