Indonesia Election 2014: Jokowi's policy stance a mystery

Indonesia Election 2014: Jokowi's policy stance a mystery

In an electoral environment where personality triumphs over policy, it is probably not surprising that the Indonesia media spends an inordinate amount of time dwelling on process instead of platforms.

Fifteen years after the dawn of the democratic era, political parties still do not feel compelled to discuss what they really stand for or get beyond some of the nationalist tripe that appeals to the public common denominator.

It is time for the popular new boy on the block to start showing the way.

Newly minted presidential candidate for the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P), Joko Widodo, a man more used to talking about floods and traffic jams than current account deficits, has not had a lot to say about national issues so far.

But with social media a major new factor, the taciturn Jakarta Governor needs to shift gears. While the bulk of the electorate does not care much about macro-economics and foreign policy, there is still a large pool of voters out there who do. How will Joko react if he is challenged to a televised debate by presidential rivals Aburizal Bakrie and Prabowo Subianto.

The latter is a savvy, forceful speaker who understands the public yearning for strong leadership and has an agenda he can articulate.

Before Joko came along and spoiled the party, the former special forces commander was ahead in public opinion surveys and enjoyed the support of younger voters who either did not know or were not interested in his controversial past.

He still looks like the Jakarta Governor's only real rival, with his Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) polling in the low double figures, a lot better than the 4.4 per cent of the vote it won in the 2009 elections.

If he has mended bridges with the United Development Party (PPP), as party sources now claim, Gerindra may need only one other party to secure 20 per cent of the House seats - the threshold needed for him to enter the presidential race.

One of three syariah-based parties in the race, PPP may benefit significantly from the collapse in support for the graft-ridden Prosperous Justice Party party, which is now in danger of failing to make the 3.5 per cent cut.

While he turned out to be a huge disappointment, voters thought they knew what they were getting with incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono after he spent years in the public eye as an army general and Cabinet minister.

It is early days yet, but Joko is a complete mystery. He has a track record that may define the man as clean, dedicated and hugely popular. But it provides few clues about where he stands on almost anything.

All he has said for public consumption so far is he wants to improve agriculture - like any good son of rural Java. Dr Yudhoyono, who holds a doctorate in agricultural economics, made that promise too, and nothing seems to have happened.

Sources around Joko say PDI-P policymakers are in the process of preparing a detailed platform that will serve as a score sheet. But they do not expect Joko to start getting into substantive matters until after the April 9 legislative elections.

Why not? Surfing in on a wave of populism smacks of lazy politics and does not do anything to prepare the candidate or the party for the rigours of governing a country of 250 million people. Simply maintaining poll numbers is not enough.

In case anyone has not noticed, the parliamentary polls and the July 9 presidential election are intertwined. The outcome of the first will undoubtedly shape the outcome of the second, or at least the composition of a ruling coalition.

It might be wildly idealistic, but as the champion of a new generation, Joko should be teaching Indonesians the meaning of their vote and why they should be demanding more from campaigning politicians than free toothpaste and T-shirts.

In the absence of public debate, election campaigns invariably evolve into dangdut concerts and noisy caravans of placard-laden cars and flag-waving motorcyclists doing endless circuits around city streets and through rural villages.

With nothing else to write about, the media homes in on the logistical challenges presented by perhaps the world's biggest single-day elections and what it likes to call "vote buying", even if it is clear that cash for actual votes does not pay in Indonesia.

Since the breakdown of president Suharto's New Order structure, the influence of authority figures, such as village heads and religious leaders, has either diminished significantly or become so diluted there is no guarantee largesse will be rewarded.

In the absence of state funding, money may boost a candidate's capacity to advertise and hire mini-skirted singers. But while there are few political rock stars like him, Joko only campaigned on weekends - and still won the 2012 gubernatorial race by a landslide.

Those who tend to look beyond the superficial worry that with the weight of a corrupt bureaucracy and self-interested elite pitted against him, Joko will be out of his depth and unable to function - even with a strong coalition at his back.

As mayor of Solo, and now governor of Jakarta, he has relied on tough deputies to do a lot of the spade work and provide the hard edge.

He will need a vice-president like that, which may be why a brace of retired field generals remain squarely in the frame.

Joko has said he believes there is little difference between managing Jakarta and managing Indonesia. But, really, there is a whole lot of difference. And the sooner he understands that, the better.

Remember, Javanese decorum took Dr Yudhoyono a long way too, until cracks appeared in his increasingly pompous and inept leadership, and he was eventually found out.

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