New face of Indonesian politics: ST interviews Jokowi

New face of Indonesian politics: ST interviews Jokowi
Throughout the ST interview, Mr Joko was polite and affable and showed he was energised by the challenge of uplifting his fellow countrymen.

On the blisteringly hot afternoon of Indonesia's 69th independence day, Mr Joko Widodo's quick changes of attire included a white long-sleeved shirt, black- and-yellow football kit and a gunny sack.

He had joined a sack race and then a football match as part of the traditional Aug 17 festivities in the gritty working-class district of Pluit in northern Jakarta.

Midway through the game, and after scoring a goal, he left the field and plopped himself flat on a concrete bench, feigning lack of fitness but not so tired as to resist hamming it up for television cameras. The crowd roared with laughter, extending camera phones and bare hands.

The attraction is mutual, Mr Joko would confess later, ensconced in his governor's office in Jakarta, where he will work until late October when he moves across town to the Presidential Palace.

"Energy," he says. "I get energy from the people."

Ask him how he got to be where he is, catapulted in less than a decade from being a mayor of a city of barely half a million to President-elect of the world's third-largest democracy, and he replies: "It is the people."

Mr Joko is the product not only of Indonesia's post-Suharto democratisation, but also of its aggressive decentralisation. To quell potential separatist sentiments in this vast archipelago, Jakarta astutely devolved authority to local governments from 2000 in a process popularly called pemekaran or "blossoming".

Those unhappy with the way their districts or cities were being run could now take up the challenge themselves instead of taking it out on the national government. That was how a small businessman from central Java first appeared on the political scene. "I felt that my city, Solo, was not developing as it should be, not like this, but like this," he says, his slender fingers slashing the air downwards.

"People such as myself had the chance to serve the community and I wanted to try and turn the city around. So I tried and I did."

Winning the mayoral election with 37 per cent of the votes, he cleaned up the streets of Solo of illegal hawkers, shepherded them into proper markets and streamlined the bureaucracy. In 2010, when he ran for re-election, he won 91 per cent of the votes. He was still an unknown outside of his region, until his successful bid for Jakarta's governorship in 2012.

In the teeming capital, he was ambitious. Instead of small projects, he wrestled with the key causes of floods and traffic congestion: Squatters living on the fringes of a major dam that needed to be dredged to contain rain and floodwater were rehoused in new flats, and street hawkers were moved into covered markets.

He kickstarted a stalled MRT project, put more public buses on the roads, and introduced cards entitling the poorest families to education help and free health care.

Now, less than a decade after becoming a mayor, he will be sworn in as Indonesia's seventh president. "You think it's too fast or very fast?" he quips.

Indeed, his work pace is becoming legendary. On the campaign trail, some collapsed in exhaustion trying to keep up with him. One senses he is seized by the mission of getting Indonesia going after decades of being held back by stultifying bureaucracy and endemic corruption. He knows progress is possible from personal experience.

He grew up in a riverbank slum. "We had one well for 10, 15 families," he says. "I was brought up on small town values, hard work, thrift and then also honouring your word. This has remained with me today."

Graduating with a forestry degree from one of the country's top universities, Gadjah Mada, he set up a business supplying wood flooring, before settling into manufacturing furniture. "My first exports were to Singapore," he says.

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