JAKARTA— The rise of Jakarta governor Joko Widodo, a former furniture retailer from a small town in Java, has become something of a political phenomenon in Indonesia. A relative outsider in a system dominated by political elites, many say Widodo is likely to be Indonesia’s next president.
Even before it was certain he would run president, Joko Widodo, known widely here by his nickname ‘Jokowi,’ has dominated opinion polls for months.
Dubbed the ‘Jokowi effect’ the current Jakarta governor is so popular that when it was confirmed just days ago that he would contest the July presidential election, the rupiah hit a 19-week high.
In a society deeply divided by extremes of wealth, racked by corruption, and where politicians rarely mix with the populace outside election time, Widodo’s approach is unique.
The 52-year-old politician is known for his down to earth style and has become famous for “blusukan,” his habit of impromptu spot checks that keep government officers wary.
Endy Bayuni, a senior editor at the Jakarta Post, said the governor’s approach has captured the imagination of Indonesian voters. “I think most of all it is his personal character. He comes across as someone who is humble, low profile, honest, qualities that seem to be lacking among most of our politicians, and I think people like that,” he stated.
The world’s third-largest democracy will go to the polls more than once this year, first in the parliamentary election this April and then in July for the subsequent presidential vote.
To nominate a presidential candidate, a party, or a coalition of parties, must win at least 25 percent of the national vote in the April ballot.
Announcing Joko Widodo’s presidential nomination last Friday afternoon, Megawati Sukarnoputri, the head of the Democratic Party of Struggle, executed brilliant political timing. Following months of intense speculation the party is now expected to draw at least 30 percent in the parliamentary vote.
Douglas Ramage, a senior analyst with Bower Group Asia said Jokowi’s clean record speaks volumes. “He is perceived as overwhelmingly honest and sincere, which voters say is the number one quality they are looking for in a candidate. I think the voters have been pretty consistent for the past decade and in almost all the past surveys about what voters are looking for in a candidate, they are putting transparency, good governance and anti corruption at the top of the list,” he said.
The governor’s biggest contender is Prabowo Subianto, a former army general accused of human rights abuses in East Timor, who is currently banned from traveling to the United States.
Other candidates include wealthy businessman Aburizal Bakrie and Wiranto, another former general.
As campaign season intensifies, each presidential candidate is working to present themselves as a common, man of the people, but in reality many have strong ties to the old regime.
Artian Pratomo, from the independent group Solo Kota Kita, said that Widodo prioritized the needs of the most vulnerable long before he thought about becoming president.
As Solo mayor, Widodo introduced basic healthcare and education for the poor and placed a strong emphasis on community consultation.
“Actually he only did small things, but those small things were the principal part of the whole idea. Only small things but the implication, the impact, was very big, because he did it with a humanistic method,” said Pratomo.
As head of the Jakarta administration for the past 18 months, Widodo has also earned praise for pragmatism and early efforts to revamp a desperately overrun metropolis.
But despite his popularity, there are many unknowns.
The governor’s grassroots approach might not work for the president’s office. Constituents know little of what he stands for at the national level.
“We don't know how familiar he is with the economic challenges Indonesia faces, or even what is his foreign policy. We don't know how he views the strategic security interests of Indonesia, so there is so many question marks about Jokowi, but I think people are willing to take the chance,” Bayuni said.
Fifteen years after the fall of dictator Suharto, the 2014 election will be the third time Indonesia democratically chooses its president.
A total 186.5 million people are registered to vote in this year’s elections.