JAKARTA: With a legal challenge by his rival defeated, Indonesia’s Joko Widodo has swept away the last barrier to the presidency and an ambitious reform agenda after an unlikely rise from his upbringing in a riverside slum.
Speaking to Agence France-Presse as aides buzzed around him at Jakarta city hall, the governor of the teeming capital outlined goals including attracting more foreign investment to Southeast Asia’s top economy, and “reviving faith” in corruption-riddled politics.
But Widodo, the country’s first leader without deep roots in the era of dictator Suharto, insisted that even when he is the most powerful man in Indonesia, he will still maintain his man-of-the-people approach to governance.
“Every day I go to the ground, I go to the people. . . it is very important to listen to the people,” said the slightly built, softly spoken president-elect, known by his nickname Jokowi.
“The people have given us a mandate to govern,” added Widodo, dressed in a traditional Indonesian “batik” patterned shirt.
Widodo’s down-to-earth image and fondness for paying impromptu visits to local communities have been key to his huge popularity as Jakarta governor, a role he will give up ahead of his October inauguration.
His style, and his background as a self-made furniture exporter, is a break from the past and sets him apart from the aloof political and military elites who have traditionally dominated Indonesian politics.
From humble beginnings in a bamboo shack on the main island of Java, he rose rapidly through local politics, and was last month elected president after a battle against Prabowo Subianto, a controversial ex-general with strong links to the country’s autocratic past.
Official results showed Widodo with a decisive victory but Prabowo nevertheless mounted a legal challenge.
But with the Constitutional Court deciding in favor of Widodo on Thursday, he can now focus on preparing to take over from outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Taking on red tape
One of the 53-year-old’s priorities is improving the notoriously difficult business climate in Indonesia by cutting red tape and improving infrastructure.
Foreign investment in Indonesia slipped to its slowest pace for five years in the first quarter of 2014, because of uncertainty ahead of the elections and policies perceived as nationalistic, and has hurt growth, which is also at five-year lows.
“We need to ensure that the investment environment in Indonesia is business friendly,” Widodo told AFP earlier this week.
He said countries his government would like to target for investment include South Korea, Japan, China and Germany.
Steps include making the system for obtaining business permits easier, upgrading the country’s ports, and focusing attention on Indonesia’s electricity network, which is unreliable in some parts of the country.
Companies complain that to do business they have to get permits from several different ministries, which issue sometimes contradictory messages, and that poor infrastructure makes moving goods around the world’s biggest archipelago nation difficult.
Although major firms are keen to shift manufacturing to Indonesia, as wages rise in countries such as China and Vietnam, in the past some have opted for other nations in the region where the environment is seen as more favorable.
Battle for clean politics
Another priority for Widodo, seen as a clean leader in a graft-ridden country, is restoring confidence in Indonesia’s young political system.
Democracy was ushered in with the downfall of Suharto in 1998, and while many enjoy the new freedoms it has brought, disillusionment is running high with the corrupt class of politicians spawned since then.
Pledging not to engage in “transactional politics”—cutting deals to give people ministerial posts —he wants to prove politicians can use their positions for the good of the people, and has vowed to champion policies to help the poor and improve welfare.
“Indonesians are very, very cynical about politics, they think it is very corrupt. We need to revive their faith,” the president-elect said.
But analysts say while such an approach is commendable, it may prove difficult in a notoriously fractious parliament, which is home to 10 parties and where deal-making and graft have long been the norm.
However, Widodo points out that as Jakarta governor, he had only a small minority in the local parliament but still managed to push policies through by appealing directly to the public to get momentum behind his initiatives.
“Our support is from the people,” he said, adding that “a good program for the people” was the way to success.
Nevertheless some policies, such as lowering fuel subsidies— a move that has sparked violent protests in the past but which economists say must be done urgently—are likely to prove much tougher than overhauling infrastructure, for example.
Whatever happens, Widodo is determined to keep making his trademark impromptu appearances in poor communities, visits known as “blusukan” in Indonesia.
Even if he can’t go in person due to his busy presidential schedule, Widodo said he has devised an “electronic blusukan” — linking up with local communities across the vast country via web chats to find out how they are getting on.