Indonesia Election 2014: Technocrat says he's seeking change

JAKARTA - At a time when many thought striking a global trade deal was impossible last December, Bali meeting chairman and then trade minister Gita Wirjawan showed sceptics it could be done by sealing an agreement for the World Trade Organisation.

Now, he intends to pull off a much more difficult feat - winning the Democratic Party's presidential convention against far more seasoned politicians.

That convention, to choose a presidential candidate for the battered ruling party, has been put on hold for campaigning for the April 9 general election. Mr Gita has also used the time to recover from exhaustion, aides say.

But the 48-year-old is no stranger to tough competition in the private sector, where he has spent most of his working life, and says that if he is elected, he wants more technocrats and fewer politicians in the Cabinet.

Politics is a different ball game altogether for Mr Gita, who only joined the Cabinet in late 2011, and whose rise on the national stage has been meteoric. The coming months will be an uphill battle for him to emerge as a fresh candidate for a party battered by graft scandals and mired in distrust.

It took some effort by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to convince him to take part in the convention, Mr Gita told The Straits Times in an interview at Senayan Golf Club, which has become his campaign headquarters of sorts since the primary started.

"I wasn't sure if I was ready for politics," he said.

He has yet to join the party. And the task ahead of him is huge - out of a field of 14 presidential hopefuls in a recent opinion poll by Indikator Politik Indonesia, he came in 10th with 0.7 per cent of the vote, well behind front runner Joko Widodo of Indonesian Democratic Party - Struggle (PDI-P) with 38 per cent and Mr Prabowo Subianto of the Gerindra Party in second place with 15 per cent.

Even Democratic Party convention front runner Dahlan Iskan got only 2 per cent of the vote.

But Mr Gita is not one to give up readily.

The avid musician, who plays the guitar, sitar and piano and has been supportive of local musicians, was tapped to head the Investment Coordinating Board in 2009 and elevated to the Cabinet in 2011, posts that he says have given him an insider view into what has worked well "and what needs to work better".

In announcing Mr Gita's successor as trade minister last month, Dr Yudhoyono paid tribute to his contributions in improving Indonesia's trade balance and helping grow the economy.

"Much has been done by Gita Wirjawan, and I hope his political career after this bears results," the President said in comments that some see as an anointment.

Mr Gita's global background stands out: He attended international schools in Dhaka and New Delhi, where his medical doctor father was at the World Health Organisation, earned his undergraduate degree in accounting at the University of Texas, where he washed dishes and cleaned sewerage pipes to make ends meet, and got a master's degree in public administration at Harvard's Kennedy School. He has also had leadership stints at Goldman Sachs and headed JP Morgan's Indonesian operations.

Mr Gita's mixed background - his late father is Muslim and his mother a Christian from North Sulawesi - has seen him push the message of tolerance in Indonesia.

"Growth has to be inclusive," he said, adding that this is regardless of belief or background.

While many say he lacks familiarity with ordinary people, being currently "jobless" has allowed him to travel across the archipelago, to introduce himself to farmers and fishermen and hear their concerns, and talk to young people to energise them about the political process.

On one trip to Riau last month, his flight to Pekanbaru was delayed for more than six hours due to low visibility, and he drove through thick haze to meet farmers. "Indonesia is not short of laws, rules and regulations. It always has been and will be short of enforcement," he said.

But this enforcement has to be made easier, he said, adding this is why his platform includes agrarian reform so the country's 40 million farmers have certainty over the land they cultivate.

He also wants a tax amnesty, which would get more people to pay taxes. Currently, only some 23 million out of a pool of 62 million eligible taxpayers pay taxes, and many who do not pay taxes fear being penalised heftily on back taxes.

This businessman-turned-bureaucrat believes he can fix some of the country's pressing economic problems, which include poor infrastructure and hefty energy subsidies.

He said: "We need to remind ourselves we are looking for a leader who can manage 250 million people, who can assure everyone that the price of beef is going to be stable, public transport stable and affordable... that it's going to be easier for anybody who wants to do business in Indonesia. And not just say it, but implement it."

On his chances against the current front runner, he said Jakarta Governor Joko "is a friend" and not "a competitor".

Then he added: "I'm not looking for power per se. I'm looking for change."

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