Man born in slums looms as Indonesia’s next leader


JAKARTA: He was raised in a bamboo shack in a riverbank slum on Indonesia’s main island of Java.

Now Joko Widodo stands a good chance of becoming the country’s next president, a remarkable rise for the down-to-earth outsider in a political scene long dominated by aloof dynasties and elites from the era of dictator Suharto.

Both Widodo, known by his nickname Jokowi, and his only rival for the presidency, ex-general Prabowo Subianto, declared victory at the July 9 election, the tightest in Indonesia since the end of authoritarian rule in 1998.

Most reliable pollsters, however, put Widodo in the lead by several points.

Official results are expected on Tuesday, and will likely confirm his victory.

But Prabowo is expected to challenge the results at the Constitutional Court, with his team claiming that their opponents tampered with the votes as they were counted, dragging out the divisive race for several more weeks.

Widodo, a former furniture exporter, shot to prominence when he was elected governor of the capital Jakarta in 2012 following a successful stint as mayor of his hometown Solo, on Java.

His hands-on-approach proved wildly popular with a public weary of corrupt, aloof politicians.

He regularly tours the teeming slums of the sprawling capital, which has a population of around 10 million, in casual clothes, and does impromptu check-ups on officials to ensure they are doing their jobs.

Despite his heavy workload, the father of three still takes time out to indulge his love of heavy metal, and is on occasion spotted headbanging at concerts in Jakarta.

His humble demeanor is a stark contrast to the political dynasties and ex-military figures with deep roots in the Suharto era who have dominated Indonesian politics since the end of the dictator’s three-decade rule in 1998.

Outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is a former general, and Widodo’s election rival Prabowo was a top military figure under Suharto who has admitted ordering the abduction of democracy activists.

New style of leader
“This is something new for Indonesians, to have a leader who is also a grounded figure,” said Tobias Basuki, an analyst with the Jakarta-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Widodo completed a forestry program at an Indonesian university, started up his own successful furniture business, and then entered politics in 2005 as mayor of Solo.

He is credited with regenerating the city during seven years in charge, moving slum dwellers into multi-story flats with working toilets, and relocating hundreds of vendors clogging footpaths to a market.

During his time in charge in the capital, construction started on several new public transport projects aimed at easing chronic traffic jams. He also pushed a series of pro-poor policies, such as easier access to free healthcare.

Foreign investors are betting on Widodo, with markets rising whenever there is positive news about his presidential run, believing he will be easy to work with and is more likely to introduce much-needed reforms in Southeast Asia’s top economy.

His time leading the capital has not been without criticism, however, with many of the projects he initiated in Jakarta nowhere near finished after such a short stint in charge.

There are also severe doubts that the slightly-built, soft-spoken man is ready to lead the world’s biggest archipelago nation, after never having had a role in national politics.

In addition, he ran a lackluster, disorganized election campaign that contributed to a steep fall in his support.



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  1. Sometime ago, about three decades past, I was negotiating with a British businessman who was selling commercial aircraft among Asian airlines which included airlines in Indonesia and here. I remember then his lament about the corruption in both government and private sectors he had to endure and contend with to sell his aircraft there in Indonesia and here. Asking where it was worse he replied to me it was as bad in Indonesia as here except, he said, in Indonesia the kickback is put upfront on a take it or leave it basis whereas here the kickback changes as you go up the heirarchy. It hasnt changed here which makes it very difficult to foreign investors doing business
    here. My son was recently in Jakarta to work on an assignment upon the request of a bank there through his research outfit called Teradata. I asked about that bank and my son said it is a medium sized bank but it is bigger than our three biggest bank here combined. Why is it, he wondered, that despite Indonesia being 90% Muslims and we are 90% Christians and we speak English with far greater facility here the Indonesians have now overrun us economically and even politically, imagine a man from thslums there has a credible chance of becoming president. The is when I recalled what that Englishman said three decades ago and our inability to get out of our corruption rut.

  2. Dominador D. Canastra on

    May his rival former general Probowo Subianto desist from plunging his country into chaos by refusing to accept Jokowi’s victory and calling on his followers in the military and police to reject Jokowi.