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Indonesia elections: Infusing democracy

Jokowi's street-style democracy has electrified Indonesia's political system.

Last updated: 10 Apr 2014 07:56
Zarina Banu

Zarina Banu is a freelance writer, focusing on economics and business-policy in the Asia-Pacific.
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Exit polls show that if presidential elections were held now, Jokowi would be swept in on a landslide, writes Banu [AP]

Joko Widodo has burst onto the national political stage with an energy that's shaking up Indonesia's established political guard. Wednesday's legislative elections have seen Widodo, better known as Jokowi, catapulted from relative obscurity into frontrunner status as a presidential candidate in the world's third largest democracy.

The quick count from Wednesday's vote shows Jokowi's party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, PDI-P, has secured around 19 percent of the vote, falling short of the 25 percent it needs to stand a presidential candidate without the aid of other political parties. Scraping together just under 10 percent of the votes, the Democratic Party of two-term President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been resoundingly trounced.

Even though PDI-P now has its work cut out to form a coalition, the early results show that Indonesians are signalling a desire for change.

101 East - Indonesia's Rock Governor

Exit polls also show that if presidential elections were held now Jokowi would be swept in on a landslide. Jokowi and PDI-P will now turn their sights on the big prize, to be decided in a nationwide vote on July 9.

Jokowi effect

With his trademark street-style democracy, Jokowi has electrified Indonesia's political system. But can the so-called "Jokowi effect" jolt Indonesian democracy for the long-term, even if he isn't elected president in July? Current conditions appear ripe for a fresh breed of politician to root out the old political line-up. And right now Jokowi is the man driving the change.

Jokowi's successful track record as governor of the capital Jakarta and as mayor of Surakarta in central Java has shown his willingness to see through real improvements on the ground. He forced through two long-stalled public transport projects - a monorail and an underground system - to alleviate the capital's chronic traffic congestion. Leading academic Christian von Luebke describes how Jokowi's efforts to reduce bureaucracy in business, improve local health services and nurture more responsive public officials transformed Surakarta for the better and won him a landslide re-election.

Jokowi's "blusukan" brand, whereby he employs spot checks on local projects and staff as a routine tactic, is much debated in Indonesia. It delights Jakarta residents, including the slum dwellers he regularly drops in on, who feel he genuinely cares about their suffering. Few others of Jokowi's stature tread into this type of real or metaphorical territory. Blusukan does away with the bureaucratic protocol favoured by Indonesia's more establishment leaders and one that conveniently divorces them from reality and from the electorate.

With his plain white shirts and slim profile Jokowi has a down to earth demeanour to match the blusukan distinction. It's a profile that gives the impression that Jokowi is someone with which poorer Indonesians can connect.

With his plain white shirts and slim profile Jokowi has a down to earth demeanour to match the blusukan distinction. It's a profile that gives the impression that Jokowi is someone with which poorer Indonesians can connect.

It is this combination of personal charisma and a seemingly genuine desire to represent the man on the street that renders Jokowi as a new model of politician. For too long the country's oligarchic elites have sat comfortably overseeing a polity that exemplified them more as kingmakers than public servants. Former President Suharto had the common touch, but it was backed by widespread repression and aided by the long arm of military might.

Indonesia's development needs

Jokowi's was voted World's Third Best City Mayor in 2012. His supporters hope he can replicate his local government's achievements at the national level. Indonesia's needs are as vast as the country's geographical spread. It must turbo-charge its development to share wealth and widen access to opportunity, otherwise its positive growth trajectory will be history.

Despite the robust GDP growth of recent years tens of millions remain excluded from the national success story. Around 12 percent of 240 million people eke out an existence on $1.25 a day. Some 60 million are without adequate sanitation and the rate of HIV/AIDS is on the rise. Around 22 percent of Indonesia's 15-24 year olds are unemployed

Successful leaders of large, unwieldy democracies must bring divergent strands of society together around a coherent national narrative. Does Jokowi have the backbone and ability to stitch together Indonesia's deviating elites and interest groups to propel the country into the next era?

Accompanying Jokowi's maverick-style leadership has been a proven ability to achieve a common aim for the greater good. He pushed through a controversial redevelopment of Blenhil, a vibrant market community in Jakarta, which involved a painful shifting of stallholders to a new site. He uses his private sector experience as a furniture exporter to convince different stakeholders that he is working to address all of their concerns.

PDI-P's failure to capture 25 percent of the vote means Jokowi will have to make the biggest bargain of his life if he wants to remain his party's presidential contender. His reformist approach, clean image and ability to swing the support of Indonesia's rival groups to his party, will stand him in good stead as he embarks on some tough political manoeuvring in advance of the July 9 vote.

Political prototype

Successfully managing this balance of interests at the presidential level could lead to a new prototype for democracy in Indonesia, more akin to the consultative democracies in Europe which Jokowi was inspired by during his visits as a private businessman to the region. It would mean the Jokowi effect would be long-lasting. If not, he would have at least stoked a ferocious debate about what is now required from a leader in Indonesia, and along the way rattled the established political order.

Jokowi may be the man of the moment, but it's worth mentioning he has, to date, submitted no concrete vision of what he would do for Indonesia if chosen for the top office, leaving many wondering exactly what it is he’s offering. More campaign promises would have arguably attracted more votes in Wednesday's elections.

The measure of a politician will often be to what extent he has kept his promises. Jokowi's critics may feel that by promising little as candidate he may deliver the same when president.

It's also one thing being mayor of a city and quite another being president. Dealing with problems on a grand scale and foreign policy are daunting tasks for any leader, let alone one in charge of a large, complex country like Indonesia.

With many Indonesians feeling the incumbent has failed to deliver, it is no wonder they're boosting Jokowi's street-style democracy. The coming weeks will reveal whether he can proffer a hard vision for the country.

Yet, whether or not he's voted in, Jokowi's blueprint for leadership could work well on the national stage - and even more for Indonesia's socioeconomic gaps. It may not be the answer to all the country's challenges, but it's worth a shot in the interim at least.

Zarina Banu is a freelance writer, focusing on economics and business-policy in the Asia-Pacific.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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