Jokowi lands one for the people

Jokowi lands one for the people
Indonesian President Joko Widowo and First Lady Ariana.

In January last year, former Golkar Party secretary-general and two- time minister Sarwono Kusumaadmadja ripped off an impulsive letter to Mr Joko Widodo, the newly-elected governor of Jakarta. It was brief and had only one message: "Go for it - run for the presidency."

"Jokowi", say insiders, was already giving it serious thought. But the letter must have encouraged him. Mr Sarwono, a shrewd judge of character, had seen something he liked: "He works intuitively. There is nothing abstract about him and he believes in what he says."

In fact, he had met him only once before, when Mr Joko was the mayor of Solo in Central Java. Arriving for his appointment at the town hall, Mr Sarwono was met by someone he took to be the mayor's protocol officer. It turned out to be Mr Joko, casually dressed as usual.

Today, that same man becomes Indonesia's seventh president, much to the chagrin of a political elite who, as Mr Sarwono delights in putting it, detests the idea of a leader "looking like a waiter and speaking in a lower-class Javanese accent".

Given the opposition lined up against him in losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto's majority Red and White Coalition, Mr Joko's baptism of fire may well last until alignments are reshaped by changing political realities.

In many ways, it does represent a class struggle. But it is also a generational change and, most importantly, a transformation in leadership style that has left many Indonesians open- mouthed.

Mr Joko is so different from the man he replaces today - Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono - and most of his predecessors that he defies belief. From humble origins, he came from nowhere to take the country's highest office without the help of a general's stars, a blue blood lineage or a businessman's war chest.

More than that, Indonesia's political Rocky forged a path to Merdeka Palace not through the wholehearted support of Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri's Indonesian Democratic Party - Struggle, but through his own hard work and popularity.

Most political parties simply don't act as conduits for aspiring new leaders, especially an egalitarian like Mr Joko. That's why activists reacted so badly to the Local Elections Law, which scraps a decade of direct elections for regional officials - the route Mr Joko took to the mayoralty in 2005.

Direct elections may be a grand idea in the first blush of democracy, but think of the loss of control and all the money parties lose when pesky voters are allowed to intervene and widen the gene pool.

Mr Joko is ambitious and tough, and makes up his own mind on almost everything. "In fact, he's enjoying it," says one of his closest advisers.

At private meetings with opposition parliamentary leaders, which they themselves initiated, the message from some of Mr Joko's hard-edged followers has been direct and unequivocal. "We've told them 'if you want to play hard ball, we will play hard ball too'," says the adviser.

For all the rhetoric, the tone has noticeably softened in the days leading up to the inauguration, with Mr Joko meeting both Mr Prabowo and Golkar chairman Aburizal Bakrie. He may be a minority leader for now, but this is, after all, a presidential system carrying the power that entails.

If the United Development Party (PPP) joins the ruling coalition - drawn by Mr Joko offering the religious affairs portfolio to respected incumbent Lukman Saifuddin - it will leave his coalition only 35 seats short of a majority in the 560-seat House.

With Mr Prabowo's Great Indonesia Movement Party and the Justice and Prosperity Party out of the equation, and the Democrats sitting on the fence, that leaves Mr Hatta Rajasa's National Mandate Party (PAN) as the wild card. Most of PAN's party faithful want to be in government, but are held hostage by the fact that Mr Rajasa's eldest daughter is married to Democrat Party secretary-general Edhie "Ibas" Baskoro, Dr Yudhoyono's youngest son.

It probably wouldn't have been an issue, but now that the Anti-Corruption Commission is said to have set its sights on Mr Edhie over two graft cases, Dr Yudhoyono has been trying to secure guarantees that his family will be protected.

The Democrats are on the back foot, given the heat that has come down on Dr Yudhoyono over his initial support for the Local Elections Law, and the hasty presidential decree he issued to repeal the measure in the face of a public outcry.

When the time comes for the new Parliament to vote on the decree, which it must do within the next three months, the Democrats will surely be compelled to support their leader's flip- flop. With PPP on board, the legislation will likely be history and the new President will have scored his first victory.

This article was first published on Oct 20, 2014.
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