Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Monday, May 12, 2014

What a Vote for Jokowi Means

Joko Widodo looks on during PDIP party campaign in Jakarta March 16, 2014. REUTERS/Beawiharta

In the aftermath of Indonesia’s recent parliamentary election, many Indonesia observers and analysts began to rethink the idea that rising star Joko Widodo, or Jokowi as he’s known, is primed to dominate Indonesia’s summer presidential election. After all, his PDI-P, which was forecasted to win big in the legislative election because of his affiliation, narrowly squeaked out a victory over Golkar. The so-called “Jokowi Effect” just didn’t happen, at least not to extent that was widely speculated. And if Jokowi couldn’t deliver a decisive win for his party, so went the logic, then his star power was probably overestimated, suggesting that we’re in for a much closer presidential contest than was initially anticipated only several weeks ago.

But as my colleague Yohanes Sulaiman has previously written on this blog, this post-election narrative is likely misguided, for lots of reasons--most notably, that there's no necessary connection between the parliamentary election results and the outcome of the upcoming presidential election. While Jokowi isn't invincible, the truth is that the presidential election is still his to lose. Jokowi's PDI-P has gotten a jump on the other parties by being the first to form a coalition that has enough support to nominate him for president. Moreover, he’s the clear frontrunner in the polls and the most popular politician in the country.

Jokowi's appeal is fairly straightforward. He is young and charismatic, particularly relative to the septuagenarians that at times dominate positions of leadership in Indonesia. His folksy charm and modest dress only enhance his political persona.

He has executive experience as a mayor in Solo and a governor in Jakarta, which means he knows how to manage and oversee a bureaucracy. Jokowi has a track record of getting things done. Among other things, his administrations have made impressive progress in improving Indonesia’s infrastructure and access to health care, resisting corruption, and fostering a better business climate.

Furthermore, Jokowi seems to have deftly infused his campaign and political career more generally with a personal touch and flair, as he’s demonstrated a good ability and willingness to connect with ordinary citizens of all walks of life. His visits to Indonesia’s poor areas, local businesses and government offices, reaching out to people, are clear examples of such behavior.

These qualities have breathed new life into the presidential election, generating a sense of excitement within Indonesia. And certainly, they give hope to Indonesians who would like to see change in national politics. As a newcomer on the national political scene, many citizens see his ascension as a sign that Indonesia will begin to shift away from a political system dominated by cloistered, corrupt insiders.

There has been one problem, however. Jokowi has been awfully vague and cryptic about his political beliefs and vision. At bottom, nobody, including Indonesian experts, really has any idea what he stands for and the kinds of policies he’s likely to pursue. This has left him open to criticism and questions, on a number of fronts.

Is Jokowi secretive? Why is he so reluctant to reveal specifics about his political agenda? Is he simply an empty suit? Perhaps Jokowi is beholden to senior level big wigs in the PDP-I, such as party chief Megawati Sukarnoputri, and thus he really doesn’t control his political platform?

Over the weekend, likely as a way to fend off some of the aforementioned rebukes, Jokowi penned a piece for Kompas, an Indonesian news source. I’m not sure he accomplished a whole lot, though. It's short on specifics and dabbles in fuzzy concepts like character, morals, culture and attitudes. On Twitter, analyst Sidney Jones offered a sharp critique, arguing “bad piece by Jokowi in today's KOMPAS. devoid of substance, kneejerk nationalism, outdated Sukarnoism. Needs to do better, and fast!"

My guess is that Jokowi doesn’t have anything up his sleeve, so to speak. Instead, he’s simply playing it safe, being ultra-defensive in his campaigning. He knows victory is his, as long as he doesn’t commit any major gaffes. As a result, for the most part, he’s resorted to giving oratorical and written bromides and pithy statements in public.

On a general level, we can speculate whether this type of opaqueness and vagueness is good for democracy and democratic elections in particular. The short answer is no. More information is always better. It allows citizens to make better, more confident decisions at the ballot box. Additionally, there is a normative component here as well. Citizens have the right to know what political candidates know and think and believe.

All of this applies to Indonesia today. All of that said, however, there is a subtle, hidden upshot here, one that shows how far and how fast Indonesia’s political system has traveled. In my view, the rise of Jokowi speaks to a confidence vote in favor of Indonesia’s political institutions. Why? Indonesian citizens are secure enough in their country’s political and judicial and economic institutions to take a chance on him. These institutions are developed enough, durable enough to withstand an inexperienced candidate taking the leadership mantle. Put another way, the presence of increasingly competent and interdependent domestic institutions reduces the risk that Indonesian citizens will take by voting for Jokowi for president.

Absent strong domestic institutions, I suspect, Indonesian voters would not be so willing to take their chances on a raw, green candidate to serve as the highest elected official in the land. In such a case, voters would probably look for someone more tethered to the state, someone who’s a safer bet to uphold the political, social and economic status quo.

Now, to be clear, I'm not suggesting that the current domestic institutional landscape causes people to vote for Jokowi; instead, what I am saying is that it sits in the background, providing an important context under which voters deliberate about and make decisions on political candidates.

Quite frankly, this is one—though not the only—reason that former Indonesian military officials have played a big role in Indonesian politics post-1998. Voters have opted for people with ties to the state, those with a vested interest in order and stability, to guide Indonesia during the country’s transition to democracy, a time of uncertainty and change. At this point, however, with Indonesia's transition nearing completion, its institutions fully formed and functional and the political process seemingly stable, citizens are now considering a wider pool of political candidates for public office.

Soon enough, what Jokowi will find is that Indonesia’s institutions will outline the boundaries under which he'll operate. Of course, this means that his ability to reconfigure the entire political system in a more progressive direction, as some wish, is not especially strong. Meantime, though, this also means that Jokowi can’t run roughshod over existing institutions, undermining democratic laws and norms and taking the country in a retrograde path.

Jokowi’s rise has been compared to that of America’s Barack Obama. Overall, the comparison isn’t nice and neat. But regarding my point above, the comparison is very apt.

American liberals and independents, tired of a decade of war and a sagging economy under George W. Bush and his Republican Party, took a chance on a rising star, a freshman Senator, from Illinois. If you recall, U.S. Republicans and conservatives decried his candidacy and eventual election. They criticized his “extreme liberal” ideas and proposed policies and his brief tenure in politics, arguing that the U.S. public was making a huge gamble in electing Obama as America’s 44th president. But the reality is that the gamble was not nearly as large the American right suggested, and most U.S. voters knew that in 2008.

Of course, it’s very questionable whether Obama really is a radical liberal. But if he is, America’s entrenched domestic institutions have prevented him from taking the U.S. in a far left direction. Sure, on health care, Obama did score a victory for liberals. But on a host of other issues, both domestically and internationally, his administration looks more like his predecessor’s, George W. Bush, than the one led by Jimmy Carter. Push back from Congress, interest groups, and public opinion has ensured that Team Obama doesn’t stray too far, either to the right or left, from the political center.

This same picture will play itself out in Indonesia. Once elected, Jokowi will be bound, to varying degrees, by a web of Indonesian domestic institutions, thereby minimizing the risk of his supporting or drafting particularly radical policies. Voters can take comfort in that.

Going forward, the bigger issue will be whether Jokowi expresses any frustration at the limitations on his ability to influence the political and policymaking process in line with his interests and beliefs. After all, this is something Obama, a former political neophyte like Jokowi, quickly discovered in his first term as president and has had to cope with since then.

*NOTE: A version of this piece has been published by Strategic Review. You can find it here.

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