Each day, Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo does something practically unheard of among Indonesia’s political elite: He ventures into the streets to speak with the people who elected him.
Most times, he is mobbed as he wanders through slums, traditional markets and other neighborhoods. Women and men try to touch him. Younger people grab his hands and lay them on their foreheads — a sign of respect. Many share their concerns over how their city is working (or not), a practice he encourages.
The people, he jokes, are not so much excited to see him; they are merely “shocked to see an Indonesian leader out of their office.”
“The people say it’s ‘street democracy’ because I go out to them,” said Joko, 52, whose supporters affectionately call him by his nickname, Jokowi. “I explain my programs. They can also give me ideas about programs.”
He also drops in on local government and tax offices to let the city’s notoriously inefficient bureaucrats know he is watching.
That daily routine is one of the main reasons Joko, a former furniture dealer, has almost overnight shot to the top of the polls about possible candidates for next year’s presidential election.
Late last month, the country’s most influential daily newspaper, Kompas, displayed his photo on its front page three days in a row along with poll results showing him with nearly double the support of the closest challenger, a retired army general. The poll also found that he had swept past the leader of his own party: Former Indonesian president Megawati Sukarnoputri, a famously imperious leader who sometimes referred to her supporters as “little people.”
“He’s the opposite of the leaders we have now. He doesn’t fit the mold at all,” said Bhimanto Suwastoyo, chief editor of the online Jakarta Globe. “The mold is: An Indonesian official does what he wants, has no connection with the people and doesn’t consult — he rules. Jokowi is doing the exact opposite. He’s hands on, he asks the public what they want, he approaches them and he’s seen as actually doing something.”
What Joko has accomplished in his first year leading the capital is not high-profile. In fact, people give him at least as much credit for what he appears not to have done. In a country rife with corruption, Joko is widely considered a clean politician who has not used his office to enrich himself and who is working hard to cut down on corruption within the government.
The issue of official corruption is expected to be a major factor in the election, the third direct presidential election since the country threw off autocratic rule 15 years ago.
The economy has been doing well — it survived the world’s 2008 financial crisis virtually untouched, multinationals have been flocking here and its GDP has expanded at a steady rate of more than 6 percent for the last three years. Still, analysts consistently say Indonesia is being held back from reaching its full potential because of corruption and collusion among government officials, lawmakers and powerful business interests.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono swept into power in 2004 and was re-elected in 2009 on an anti-corruption platform, but his governing Democratic Party has been mired in corruption scandals the past two years.
With months to go before the election, anything can happen to derail Joko’s chances. The retired general who ran second in the Kompas poll, Prabowo Subianto, has a strong following among the poor and has been considered a top contender for the presidency, despite widespread allegations of human rights abuses in East Timor. (Prabowo and Joko are members of opposition parties; Yudhoyono cannot run again because of term limits.)