When Joko Widodo won his first election as mayor of Surakarta in In 2005, few would have guessed that the soft-spoken furniture exporter would one day be the front runner in an Indonesian presidential race.
But the 53-year-old, now the governor of Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, will need a strong finish in the final week of campaigning to avoid being overtaken by his lone opponent, Prabowo Subianto, whose polling numbers have surged in the past month.
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Widodo, who is popularly known as “Jokowi”, was born in Surakarta and studied forestry at Gadjah Mada University. Graduating in 1985, he worked at a state-owned company for a few years before starting his own furniture factory. His business acumen served him well, and his company grew to export furniture around the world.
In 2005, he was elected mayor of Surakarta, also known as Solo, a city of half a million in Central Java. His leadership style and introduction of healthcare and education assistance programmes to the city’s residents propelled him to re-election in 2010 with 91 percent of the vote.
Jokowi’s popularity in Surakarta brought him national prominence and, tapped to run for governor of Jakarta in 2012, he unexpectedly beat the incumbent, Fauzi Bowo.
‘Someone outside of the system’
Unlike many prominent Indonesian politicians, Jokowi does not come from among the country’s elite. “I used to live in a slum area next to the river,” Jokowi said of his upbringing in an interview with Al Jazeera’s Step Vaessen earlier this year. “We were evicted four times.”
“Jokowi represents … a new type of leader that is very different from Indonesia’s past,” said Tobias Basuki, a researcher at Indonesian think-tank CSIS. “It’s someone from outside of the system, someone from outside the political elite and the political oligarchy.”
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Jokowi has a populist touch whose distinctive style includes “blusukan” – impromptu visits to meet face-to-face with constituents, often the poor and marginalised. He has also made unexpected stops at government buildings to assess the performance of officials, on one occasion ordering that a man playing video games at work be fired.
The politician is well-known for being a diehard devotee of heavy metal music, expressing admiration for Metallica and Napalm Death, among others.
As governor of Jakarta, Jokowi has focused on inefficiency and corruption, addressing Jakarta’s persistent flooding problems, and introducing a universal healthcare system for the capital’s residents.
His name has been floated as a potential contender since 2012, but it was only this March – four months ahead of the presidential election and just before parliamentary polls – that the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) nominated him as its presidential candidate.
Since then, his star seems to have faded a bit: The PDI-P did not perform as well as it had hoped in April’s parliamentary elections, thwarting hopes that a “Jokowi effect” would boost the party’s showing.
Meanwhile, much of Jokowi’s once-sizeable lead against Prabowo in the polls has evaporated.
A ‘cat in a bag’?
Since his nomination, the governor has been criticised for failing to clearly communicate what he would do if elected president.
“Jokowi is very popular; a majority of the people like him,” said Yohanes Sulaiman, an analyst and lecturer at Indonesian National Defence University. But, he added, some see voting for him as similar to “buying a ‘cat in a bag’ – basically, we don’t know what kind of cat it is”.
Recently, Jokowi has had to contend with false rumours spread on social media and in some tabloid newspapers that he is secretly a Christian and ethnically Chinese, or that his parents were born in Singapore. He responded by stating that he has been on the haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are required to perform, and noted that his mother was born near a village in East Java named Singapura. “Maybe they were talking about that,” he joked.
For supporters, Jokowi’s appeal is as a “man of the people” – whereas his rival Prabowo is seen as “decisive” and “firm”, according to polling firm Populi. If elected, Jokowi says he will work to reduce corruption, expand agricultural land to reduce Indonesia’s dependence on imports and make it easier for businesses to set up and operate in the country.
On foreign policy, Sulaiman said he “[doesn’t] think there will be much changes … if Jokowi is the next president”, adding that the candidate “is running with the usual run-of-the-mill intellectuals”.
Jokowi’s running mate, 72-year-old Jusuf Kalla, is a businessman who served as vice president during current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s first term in office, and was also a leader of the Golkar Party.