Former funiture salesman gets ordinary Indonesians excited about election.

A former furniture salesman is about to revitalise democracy in the world's fourth largest nation. Indonesia goes to the polls between now and July this year. Approximately 188 million people are eligible to vote and on July 9 they will choose a new president. Indonesia is, by most measures, a political success story. From the mid-1960s until the late 1990s, the country was ruled by one of the strongest and most resilient dictators in Asia. Fifteen years after President Suharto was forced to resign in massive street protests, Indonesia is now the most democratic state in Southeast Asia.

The country is not without its problems, of course. Democracy has vastly enhanced freedoms and accountability but has seen the entrenchment of corruption. Politicians, police officials, even judges of the highest courts in the land have been arrested for using their influence to extract rents. The benefits of recent economic growth have been overwhelmingly enjoyed by a small proportion of the population.

Between 2010 and 2011, the wealth of the richest 150 grew by 75 per cent while at the same time Indonesia slipped rapidly on the United Nation's Human Development Index. American scholar Jeffrey Winters describes Indonesia as an oligarchy in which a tiny group of the nation's elite dominate the lion's share of wealth and political power. The top 500 oligarchs are 600,000 times more wealthy than the average citizen.

Many Indonesians believe the current president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has done little to reverse this inequality or to reduce corruption. He has appeared uninterested in dealing with a series of scandals, many involving his own political party. When Indonesians are asked what they see as the most important issues in the election, they say eradicating corruption is the most pressing, well ahead of its nearest rival, increasing employment. The Indonesian people have grown tired and frustrated with this "rule of the elite for the elite".


Until a week ago, it appeared the upcoming elections would change little. The main candidates for president were two former generals, both of whom are considered to have been involved in serious human rights abuses and one of whom holds a personal fortune worth approximately US$150 million.

Their main opponent was Indonesia's former richest man, whose company is accused of causing the world's largest mud volcano which has swallowed villages and fields in East Java. Unsurprisingly, none excited the ordinary Indonesian voter. But then came a political outsider with popular support so great that one of the political parties had to nominate him as their candidate.

Joko Widodo, popularly and affectionately known as Jokowi, is a former furniture salesman. He rapidly rose from mayor of the city of Solo, to governor of Jakarta and is now the unbackable favourite for the presidency. He is currently polling at 41.5 per cent, two and a half times higher than his nearest rival, former general Prabowo Subianto.

His policies in local politics have been wildly popular - healthcare plans, moves to reduce flooding and improve public transport in the capital (Auckland's rush hour pales in comparison to Jakarta's traffic congestion). He arrives at government offices unannounced and reprimands inefficient or uninterested public servants.

Minorities appreciate he ran for the Jakarta governorship alongside a Chinese Indonesian Christian and that he has refused to bow to pressure from Islamist street organisations to replace Christian officials in local government. Voters love his "everyman" image, his modest shirts and his willingness to talk to ordinary people.

Even better, he listens to them. They see him as humble and trustworthy, they believe he has only agreed to run because of popular support, not used his wealth and influence to further his own ambitions. Indonesia expert David McRae sums up his popularity; it is the "first time in a long time that people have seen themselves reflected in a politician".

There are reasons to be sceptical, of course. A similar optimism was felt when Yudhoyono was elected, and most now feel disappointed at the end of his tenure. And several observers remind us that Jokowi has not indicated how he would approach foreign or economic policy as the leader of the nation.

He has, though, been the executive of two cities, including the capital, and has demonstrated both his determination to improve governance and his capacity to get things done. But any programme of reform and, in particular, a commitment to the interests of the disadvantaged will face opposition within Parliament.

The fractured nature of party politics in Indonesia leads to governments made of broad coalitions. Yudhoyono was required to include politicians from several different parties within his Cabinet, one factor in his failure to further political and economic reform.

But, in a country where wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small group of politicians and businesspeople, the rise of a "people's president" is one of the world's political good news stories. It may herald a new era in which candidates for the highest office are those who have worked their way through lower levels of government rather than members of the Jakarta elite with wealth and "hard man" personas.

Several parties are now running taxi drivers and other candidates from more "common" backgrounds to take advantage of the "Jokowi effect". Oligarchy has undermined Indonesians' faith in democracy over the past decade. Perhaps I am too optimistic, but Jokowi's almost certain victory in July could foretell a regeneration of democracy in the world's largest Muslim country.

Chris Wilson is a lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Auckland.