Joko Widodo, The Unlikely President - OZY | A Modern Media Company


It was “Yes We Can” all over again — except this time, it was in Indonesia, where a political outsider made the populace believe in the power of democracy again.  

The honeymoon’s still on.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo had practically won his election before he’d even announced he was running. Now, less than two months into his term, the man known as Jokowi seems as popular as ever. Yes, it’s early, and not everyone’s on board: Skeptics worry that the legislature, controlled by opposition groups affiliated with the old and monied guard, won’t make things easy. And he has angered some by not revoking the early parole of a pilot who was convicted of murdering a prominent human rights activist.

Still, Jokowi has found some early successes. To get Indonesia’s sliding economy back on track, he hiked subsidized fuel prices — a move that has caused violent demonstrations in years past but was almost universally praised this time around. The country’s new cost-cutter also announced plans to slash the travel, party and meeting budget for government officials by more than a third. To show he was serious, Jokowi traveled economy class to his son’s graduation.

… a far cry from the usual breed of Indonesian politician, connected by blood, business or breeding to generations of a ruling elite.

But more than a set of policies, Jokowi represents the new for many Indonesians. Because of his hands-on manner and fresh appeal, Jokowi is often compared to Barack Obama — a onetime Indo resident, as it happens. Certainly his sweet, squinty-eyed smile and bone structure make him look like Obama’s long-lost cousin, but Jokowi’s advisers play up the resemblance, too: There’s the president, grinning and relaxed in an open-necked shirt, on the cover of his self-titled memoir — which has drawn comparisons to Dreams From My Father, Obama’s first memoir.

The real motor of Jokowi’s appeal is probably the blusukan, or “unannounced visit.” He pioneered it when he became mayor of Surakarta, in Java, in 2005, and made it routine during his 16-month tenure as governor of the city of Jakarta. Jokowi shows up at marketplaces, unannounced, and chats up the vendors. He conducts spot checks of government offices, aiming to keep factotums on their toes. Admirers say Jokowi likes to “see with his own eyes and fix problems with his own hands.”

Joko amongst crowd wanting to be around him

A down-to-earth “Jokowi” shows up at marketplaces, unannounced, and chats up the vendors.

It’s all good marketing, of course. When he was mayor of Surakarta, the power utility shut off the city’s streetlights for unpaid bills. It could have been a PR disaster but for the way Jokowi played it: Accompanied by hundreds of residents and shutter-snapping journalists, he went personally to the electricity office to pay off the arrears — in countless bundles of small-denomination notes. He made his point — that utilities should take public interest into account — and scored one, too.

Still, Jokowi is also a far cry from the usual breed of Indonesian politician — removed from the people but connected by blood, business or breeding to generations of a ruling elite. “The people need someone honest, rather than well educated but corrupt,” said Bambang Budiarto, an Indonesian protocol officer for ASEAN, last spring. He helped organize a conference where Jokowi spoke, and was impressed by the then-governor’s approachability and lack of airs.

Jokowi has the rags-to-riches résumé of our favorite modern heroes. He is the oldest of four children born to a furniture maker, and during his childhood, the family lived in a rented shack on the banks of a river that tended to flood. But young Joko made his way. He earned an engineering degree and then entered the family furniture business — though he outdid his forefathers. He took the business global — at one point, he had 1,000 people working for him — and in 2002 became president of the Surakarta branch of the powerful furniture manufacturer’s association. In 2010, he was worth an estimated $1.5 million.  

Two years later, he resigned his second term as Surakarta mayor to run for governor of Jakarta — the equivalent of mayor — and won handily. As mayor of Indonesia’s capital and largest city, Jokowi gets props for following through on campaign promises. His administration has created techie anti-corruption measures like welfare e-cards, which allow beneficiaries to remit directly to hospitals and schools, and an online tax payment system. The idea was to prevent government skimming.

Skeptics — and there are some — worry that President Jokowi might lose his luster the longer he stays in office. 

Jokowi also devoted himself to making traffic-choked, flood-prone Jakarta more livable. Plans for mass rapid transit are on the table again. Street vendors have moved to indoor marketplaces, making circulation easier. And thousands of poor squatters have been relocated to low-cost public housing, so that the reservoir they lived near can be dredged. Miraculously, he didn’t lose love from those who were displaced. 

Skeptics — and there are some — worry that President Jokowi might lose his luster the longer he stays in office. Indonesia, after all, is a geographically fragmented, complex country of 250 million, with plenty of hurly-burly. After all, it didn’t take long after Obama’s inauguration for his sheen to fade. It’s too soon to tell whether Jokowi can keep his. 

This story was originally published Feb. 27, 2014, and was updated by Nathan Siegel.

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