Insight: Presidency beckons for Jakarta's rags-to-riches governor

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, the governor of Jakarta, might well be the future of Indonesian democracy. Here’s why.

Jakarta's Governor Joko Widodo, also known as Jokowi, speaks during an interview with Reuters in his car on his way back to his office in Jakarta April 9, 2013. REUTERS/Enny Nuraheni

On a recent afternoon he visited Tambora, a densely populated area of west Jakarta, to inspect the aftermath of a slum fire. Within minutes, the narrow streets were a moshpit of jostling well-wishers. Women embraced him. Men kissed his hand. School children chanted “Long live Jokowi!”

Unattended by bodyguards, Widodo edged through the scrum wearing a spotless white shirt and the sort of unfaltering grin that makes a normal man’s face ache.

No wonder he’s smiling. He is a wildly popular leader in a country where scandal has tarnished or toppled almost every leading politician, including President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and those vying to replace him in next year’s election.

His rise has been formidable. So, too, is the task of fixing a city whose problems are holding back one of Asia’s largest and fastest-growing economies.

Widodo, 51, is a former furniture salesman who grew up in a riverside slum in Surakarta, better known as Solo, a once-declining city in Central Java where he was elected mayor in 2005. Over the next seven years he cut crime, revived the local economy and gained a reputation for clean, can-do governance that propelled him into Jakarta’s City Hall last October.

Widodo’s plans for the Indonesian capital are even more ambitious. He vows to solve its chronic flooding, alleviate its maddening traffic and re-house more than a million slum-dwellers. “My inspiration is the people,” he told Reuters. “I think we can solve our problems here.”

Jakartans think so too. Widodo is mobbed by crowds during his daily visits to low-rent communities, feted by the media and feared by underperforming city officials.

That Widodo’s simple formula - competence, transparency and the common touch - seems so revolutionary is a testament to how corrupt and remote most Indonesian politicians are. In a country where political parties are distinguished not by policies but by personalities, Widodo seems a shoo-in for president - if he decides to run. For now, he says he will concentrate on Jakarta.

His Indonesia Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) may have other ideas. Its leader is former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Indonesian independence hero Sukarno.

“Megawati doesn’t want to stand next year,” says a senior party official, a Megawati confidant who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We don’t want to announce it yet, but . . . it’s clear that in the party, everyone has Jokowi in mind.”

While Widodo’s popularity is rare for an Indonesian politician, it is far from unique. He is only the most celebrated of a new batch of popular and pragmatic leaders who could revolutionize the way Indonesia’s young democracy is run.


These leaders are products of Indonesia’s decade-old experiment with decentralization - a process more often blamed for creating corrupt local elites. “It’s important for Indonesians to understand that it’s not just Jokowi,” says Marco Kusumawijaya, director of the Jakarta-based urban studies think tank Rujak. “What we’re seeing is the emergence of new types of leaders.”

Many of them hail not from the bureaucracy - the usual source - but from other professions.

Kholiq Arif, the mayor credited with revitalizing the Central Java city of Wonosobo, is a former journalist. Mayor Herman Sutrisno of Banjar, another Javanese town, is a doctor who still performs vasectomies as part of his family planning program.

Capable regional leaders often win attention and funds from the central government, as Widodo did in Solo. Bantaeng in Central Sulawesi was picked for a pilot national healthcare program after its mayor Nurdin Abdullah improved the city’s welfare services.

“Indonesia should have more of these leaders,” says Tri Rismaharini, the mayor of Surabaya, herself praised for reviving Indonesia’s second-largest city. “We’ve been independent for over 60 years and we should have advanced further by now. We are rich in natural and human resources, and we need leaders who understand this potential.”

But for every mini-Widodo there are local leaders who have used decentralization to misrule and plunder.

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Syamsul Arifin is serving a six-year jail sentence for embezzling nearly Rp 10 billion (US$1 million) during his time as governor of North Sumatra. Banten, a province run by Indonesia’s first female governor, Ratu Atut Chosiyah, has become a byword for nepotism. Her husband, son, daughter-in-law, sister and sister-in-law all hold senior political posts.

Other local politicians have passed Islamic bylaws that oblige women to wear headscarves or be chaperoned by male relatives when going out after dark.


Widodo’s father was a truck driver, his mother a bamboo seller, and his childhood home a shack on the banks of the Kalianyar River in Solo. Later, his father ran a small timber business, and Widodo studied at the forestry department of Universitas Gadjah Mada in the nearby city of Yogyakarta. He was the first member of his family to attend university.

It taught him a valuable lesson: poor people who don’t understand the value of education remain poor. During his walkabout in Tambora, he not only inspected burned-out houses but also handed out free books and school bags to children. “Study! Study!” he urged, as they mobbed his departing car.

Exporting furniture made Widodo a millionaire and a prominent Solo businessman. But it was the city’s deteriorating state that lured Widodo into politics.

Riots during the 1998 downfall of the dictator Suharto razed homes and businesses in Solo and wrecked its economy. The city was also notorious as the home of radical Islamic cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, considered the spiritual leader of the bombers who killed more than 200 people in Bali in 2002. “Investors didn’t trust our city,” he says.

Campaigning with the slogan “Shining Without Corruption”, Widodo became Solo’s first directly elected mayor in 2005. His signature achievement was unclogging Solo’s streets and public spaces by relocating thousands of illegal vendors to new facilities. He did this through incentives discussed at dozens of meetings with the vendors, often over lunch or dinner.

“He kept on talking until he convinced them,” says Widodo’s friend Mari Pangestu, then Indonesia’s trade minister and now its minister of tourism and creative economy. “He’s very persistent - not pushy, but persistent. If he believes in that idea he’ll keep coming back to you and follow up.”

After revitalizing Solo’s traditional markets, he attracted new business by setting up a one-stop shop that allowed investors to cut through bureaucratic corruption and red tape. Corrupt officials were fired.

Widodo and his then-deputy Hadi Rudyanto also improved slums and access to healthcare services, and boosted tourism by promoting Solo as a centre for Javanese art and culture. They were re-elected in 2010 with 90 percent of the vote.

Widodo abandoned his second term as Solo mayor to run for Jakarta governor, easily beating the Jakarta-born incumbent, Fauzi Bowo.


Jakarta, home to 10 million people, should be famous for its rich Betawi culture and thriving arts scene. Instead, it is notorious for biblical floods, sprawling slums and soul-crushing gridlock.

Floods have grown more frequent over the past decade, killing scores of people and causing millions of dollars of damage. In mid-January, days of heavy rain transformed the city into a grim imitation of Venice. The grounds of City Hall, a white-painted Dutch colonial building in central Jakarta, were shin-deep in filthy water.

Jakarta has a shabby and chaotic public transport system and no subway, which forces more people - especially Indonesia’s growing middle classes - into private vehicles. Jakartans buy more than 440 cars and 1,400 motorbikes every day, says Widodo.

Then there are the slums: more than 4.7 million Jakartans live in them, he says.

Widodo’s big-ticket public transport projects are the city’s first subway (which was first proposed 24 years ago) and a monorail (14 years ago). He promises the subway, or mass rapid transit (MRT), will be completed in seven years - he formally announced the $2.4 billion project on May 2 - and the monorail in half that time.

He also plans to add more buses and dedicated bus routes, and to squeeze motorists with stiffer parking fees and congestion charges.

Many of Jakarta’s problems are interconnected: its lack of green space, for example, means lower absorption of flood waters. But then so are its solutions: remove refuse-producing slums from the banks of rivers and canals and flood waters drain more easily.

Another example is street vendors. In 2004, Jakarta had about 90,000 of them, mostly illegal, says Hasan Basri Saleh, Widodo’s top economics advisor at City Hall. Today, there are more than 270,000. Getting these stalls off the roadsides and into purpose-built markets will ease traffic congestion. Some 4,000 can move into unoccupied kiosks at Jakarta’s 153 existing markets, he says, but new markets will have to be built for the rest.

Jakarta’s burgeoning population has overwhelmed city planners since Indonesia won independence in 1945. This explains why many of Widodo’s solutions involve moving people.

His immediate goal is to transfer more than 100,000 families from slums into public housing during his first term. That’s about half a million people. His longer-term plan is even more ambitious: to re-house a total of 370,000 poor families.

Widodo says the city will buy up hundreds of hectares of land, mostly from private developers, to build not just housing but also parks and flood-prevention infrastructure. The plan is “really massive”, says economics advisor Hasan. “I don’t know of any precedents.”

Widodo says there is “more than enough” in the city’s $4.9 billion budget, which he vows to double in two years through a more efficient tax system.


Widodo’s reflexive populism can get tiresome. Who are his political advisors? “My advisor is the people.” Biggest achievement? “Ask the people.” We get it.

But Jakarta people aren’t like Solo people, says Fadli Zon, vice chairman of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) and a long-time Widodo associate. With a population twenty times larger than Solo’s, Jakarta is a “mosaic of different religions and ethnic groups” with a highly critical middle class impatient for change, he says. “It’s a very, very difficult position.”

A free healthcare scheme was widely criticized for overwhelming the city’s hospitals, clinics and medical staff. But the response to Widodo’s walkabouts suggests his popularity is undented.

When President Yudhoyono made an impromptu visit to a fishing village in Banten province in January, the Indonesian media accused him of trying to boost his flagging popularity with a distinctive Widodo tactic.

“Jokowi is a new star,” Yudhoyono told Reuters in April. “He could be a contender for the presidency someday.” But he said Widodo needed more time as Jakarta governor to learn how to run a large organization.

Yudhoyono’s own scandal-plagued Democratic Party offers no credible rivals. Widodo remains more popular than any other declared presidential candidates. Aburizal Bakrie, the billionaire leader of the Golkar party, lacks his rags-to-riches backstory and common touch. Prabowo Subianto, the Gerindra party candidate, is sullied by human rights abuses committed by Indonesia’s special forces, Kopassus, which he once commanded.

Even so, the PDI-P will announce Widodo’s candidacy as late as possible, says the senior party official. “If we announce it now, everyone will make him a target and gun him down between now and next year.”

Many supporters still hope Widodo will save any presidential bid for 2019. “Jakarta still needs him,” says Budi Adiputro, 26, one of dozens of journalists now on the City Hall beat.

Urban planner Marco Kusumawijaya is less concerned.

“In this country, where there is such a shortage of good leaders, we should let him go as high as he can,” he says. “We shouldn’t keep him to ourselves. And he might manage Jakarta quite well, even as president.”

Editing by Dean Yates