Joko Widodo. Pic: AP.

Despite having been involved in politics for little more than nine years, Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo has already contested four separate elections – all of which he won – and is now poised to become president of the world’s third largest democracy. What does this rather anomalous statistic tell us about the rise to power of a man who has gone from small-town furniture salesman to leader of a vast archipelagic nation in less than a decade? Has Jokowi’s presidency arrived prematurely, and if so, how did it come to pass?

We know that Jokowi is a political outsider; someone who has fought for power from the grassroots up and beaten many of the nation’s established elites on their own turf. This is, indeed, a highly symbolic victory for Jokowi, as well as an important milestone for Indonesia’s young democracy, but how was such a feat achieved by a man with absolutely no experience in national level politics?

Jokowi was a late choice as presidential candidate for the PDI-P party, having been thrust into the contest for lack of any other conceivable option by the domineering and monolithic chairlady of the party, Megawati Soekarnoputri. The 67-year-old Megawati, daughter of Indonesia’s founding father Soekarno, has fought and lost two previous presidential elections on the PDI-P ticket, and probably would have done the same this year if it wasn’t for the fanatical popularity of Joko Widodo. Jokowi was less than two years into his first term as Jakarta governor when he finally received Megawati’s last-minute “blessing” and was nominated for the presidential ticket, a responsibility which he willingly accepted but had never demanded of his own volition.

Although the long delay in putting forward Jokowi’s candidacy hindered his campaign from the outset, his bid for presidency was backed by hugely popular demand – and his victory at first seemed a foregone conclusion. In his short time as Jakarta governor, Jokowi had already cultivated an indelible persona as a down to earth, reformist politician, renowned for his love of wearing chequered shirts as much as his willingness to visit poor constituents and chat with them on their terms. This was a winning formula for Jokowi in both his native Solo and Jakarta, and he had become a media sensation long before being coaxed towards the State Palace by Megawati.

In the early days of his head-to-head battle with Prabowo Subianto for the presidency, Jokowi was forecast to win the election by a margin of perhaps 30 percent, but events along the campaign trail quickly revealed serious shortcomings in Jokowi’s suitability for presidency. In public appearances Jokowi often seemed uninspired, unprepared and excessively self-deprecating. His oratory was lacklustre, he seemed to lack big ideas, and he sometimes committed the bizarre error of pointing out that he is “a simple person; not [a] smart” man, as if to imply that any old administrator with a fondness for straightforward solutions and clean governance could do a decent job as president of the world’s fourth most populous country.

Indeed, it was exactly this sort of humble and approachable comportment which made Jokowi an effective and compelling politician among poor voters at the municipal level, but the everyman charm inevitably seemed underwhelming coming from an aspiring president. This contradiction has now become an antinomy bind for Jokowi, which he will either have to accept as permanent or learn to outgrow once in power. The latter option will be all the more difficult, however, given that Jokowi has been offered little room for autonomy by his party superiors, particularly Megawati, who sees Jokowi merely as a subservient functionary tasked with “implementing the party’s ideology.”

In contrast to Jokowi’s humility, Prabowo proved to be a formidable opponent precisely because of his appetite for bluster and self-conviction, even though his campaign relied heavily on clichéd, antagonistic narratives, such as foreign crooks pilfering the great wealth of Indonesia, or a supine class of squabbling politicians presiding over a “destructive democracy.” Admittedly, Prabowo’s campaign also benefitted enormously from the smear tactics employed by his supporters, who ‘accused’ Jokowi of being a closet Christian, of Chinese descent, Singaporean birth, and a sympathiser of Indonesia’s long deceased communist party, the PKI. By the end of the election, team Prabowo had thrown almost every trick in the book at poor Jokowi. But perhaps even more revealingly, it also has to be said that Jokowi did not do nearly enough to defend himself or hit back at Prabowo’s own, genuine weak points.

Why, for instance, did Jokowi never challenge Prabowo to account for his abysmal human rights record – which includes allegations of torture, kidnap, disappearance and mass murder. Prabowo has never stood trial for any of these violations, despite huge amounts of evidence against him and previous recommendations for his prosecution by the National Human Rights Commission. That Jokowi neglected to probe this dark past not only contradicts his own claim  to being a human rights defender, but also suggests a timidity of character which certainly doesn’t bode well for his presidency. Additionally, Jokowi should also be criticised for failing to denounce Prabowo’s openly autocratic intentions, such as his support for the termination of ‘costly’ direct presidential elections and a return to Indonesia’s scrapped 1945 Constitution, which would have concentrated yet more power in the office of the executive.

So how is Jokowi expected to play the role of disciplinarian in Indonesia’s top job if he couldn’t even bear to mention his opponent’s most egregious abuses of power, or his obvious fetish for dictatorial politics?

A more combative candidate, if put in Jokowi’s position, would have exploited these weak points and pressured Prabowo to conform – in the spirit of reformasi - to principles of truth, accountability, human rights and greater democracy, which were put in grave danger during this year’s election. Why Jokowi was never more resolute in his defence of these ideals remains an open question, especially so given that his own rise to power would have been utterly inconceivable if it weren’t for the greater openness and democratisation unleashed by Indonesia’s reformasi.

Liberal commentators who recognised these shortcomings in Jokowi’s candidacy were loath to point them out along the campaign trail, knowing that a victory for Prabowo would have been a potential death sentence for Indonesia’s democracy. And thus, despite his obvious lack of experience and subjugation to Megawati, for most liberals Jokowi was always the only credible contender in this year’s election, even before he secured the nomination from his party chair.

So now that Jokowi’s victory is almost a done deal, save for the impudent antics of team Prabowo at the Constitutional Court, we can speak more plainly about the incoming president. Despite the obvious novelty of a furniture salesman-cum-president, the nature of Jokowi’s election victory indicates a faltering of reformasi - both as an ongoing political project and a source of inspiration for Indonesia’s leaders and voters. The very fact that a fugitive like Prabowo was even allowed to compete illustrates how reformasi has so far failed to ensure that well-moneyed, blue-blooded elites can be held accountable for their crimes. And the millions of votes which Prabowo received, despite his pledge to dismantle certain features of Indonesia’s democracy, similarly suggest that the spirit of reformasi is now a spent force among much of the electorate.

On the one hand – with this being so – it is immensely fortuitous that a fundamentally benign and well-meaning politician such as Jokowi was ready and willing to rescue Indonesia’s democracy precisely when required to do so. And in this purely co-incidental sense, Jokowi’s rise to power might be thought of as perfectly timely. However, it goes without saying that Jokowi remains distinctly under-qualified to take up such a pivotal role as president, and he runs the risk of becoming a mouthpiece for more senior and experienced figures around him, such as Megawati and vice president-elect Jusuf Kalla.

In short, Jokowi will have a hard time proving to his supporters that he has not – to borrow a rendering from Edward Aspinall – “already performed perhaps the greatest service he’ll ever perform for his country, and that’s preventing Prabowo from becoming the president.”

his article is the second of a three-part series. Please also see:

Jokowi’s Challenge – Part 2: High hopes and harsh realities

Jokowi’s Challenge – Part 3: An end to impunity or same old injustices?