Joko Widodo

Indonesian presidential candidate Joko Widodo, popularly known as "Jokowi" gestures as he leaves a press conference in Jakarta, Indonesia, Thursday, July 10, 2014. Pic: AP

Assuming the count holds, Indonesia’s next president changes the rules — in favor of democracy

What is the meaning of Joko “Jokowi” Widodo?  Assuming the “quick count” results from Wednesday’s election hold up, the presumptive next president of Indonesia has risen from obscurity in just two years to do something virtually no Asian politician in living memory has done: become a national leader on the basis of civic accomplishment, not family heritage or party connections.

Assuming feared dirty tricks from his opponent’s camp do not materialize to create uncertainty and instability, Jokowi has claimed the prize as a democrat and a true outsider. It is a rare feat. Every other county in Southeast Asia is governed by seasoned party veterans such as the warhorses of Malaysia and Singapore, the communist autocrats of Vietnam and Laos, the royalist-backed military now running Thailand, Cambodia’s perennial strongman Hun Sen or the aristocratic politicians who typically claim power in the Philippines.

But Jokowi, whose back story as a furniture maker turned mayor turned governor turned national phenomenon is by now globally known, represents a new breed of politician for his country and the region. He is the first Indonesian politician to ride to national prominence using the democratic rules painfully built since the demise of the three-decade dictatorship of the late President Suharto in 1998.

Spotted when he was still a modest businessman and a budding civic activist, he was elected mayor of the small city of Solo in 2005 and he was praised, liked and reelected for doing a good job. From there he came to the attention of former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, the chairman of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), who backed his successful run for Jakarta governor in 2012. Ironically, his other major ally was former General Prabowo Subianto, his rival for president; virtually every other major political actor at the time backed the entirely forgettable – but malleable – incumbent. The searing bitterness of the campaign was driven in large part because Prabowo once saw Jokowi’s rise as a harbinger of his own drive to be president.

The rise of Jokowi, though, is about something deeper than just winning elections. He has so far been a very capable elected official with no hint of corruption attached to him, but that is only part of his appeal. His supporters are also attracted to him precisely because he is that rare politician who seems uncynically close to the people he represents.  Time and again Indonesians have told me that they supported Jokowi because he is “one of us.” No one would say that of the aloof and patrician current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who presides but rarely connects, nor of any other Indonesian president.

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