The rise of Joko Widodo in Indonesian politics

Mr Joko Widodo.

INDONESIA - C'mon, who is Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) leader Megawati Sukarnoputri trying to kid?

Here we are all waiting around to see if she will step aside for wildly popular Jakarta governor Joko Widodo to run in next year's presidential election when it appears as obvious as the nose on your face that she will.

Any thought she may have entertained of using him as her running mate to make a third attempt at winning back the presidency surely disappeared with the results of a recent poll conducted by the leading Kompas newspaper.

That has Mr Widodo's popularity as a prospective presidential candidate stretching out to 32.5 per cent, from 17.7 per cent only six months ago - four percentage points higher than any previous survey. Ms Megawati's fortunes, by comparison, declined from 9.3 per cent to 8 per cent.

Nestled in between them is Greater Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) patron Prabowo Subianto, the clear front-runner before Mr Widodo came on the scene, who edges up from 13.3 per cent to 15.1 per cent in the Kompas poll.

Ms Megawati has often talked about grooming a new generation of leadership. But rhetoric aside, PDI-P's own polling shows that she would lose against Mr Prabowo - even with Mr Widodo as her running mate.

When she ran with Mr Prabowo in 2009, many of the PDI-P voters I talked to in Central Java thought if the retired general was the candidate, incumbent Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono would have been in for a much closer race.

Ms Megawati obviously likes Mr Widodo - and that's important for someone who harbours grudges and expects loyalty from everyone in a party whose processes are hardly democratic. She, after all, calls the shots.

Don't make the mistake of viewing Mr Widodo as some sort of country hick. He may not have the sophistication of Dr Yudhoyono or the family legacy of Ms Megawati, but he knows what he's doing and he has a style the established political elite can't emulate.

Will he make a good president? Who knows? But for a youthful electorate, tired of endemic corruption and crying out for someone different and apparently clean, it doesn't really matter.

Whether it is calculated or not, Mr Widodo hardly puts a foot wrong when it comes to portraying himself as the man with the common touch. It is working well for him in a metropolis that seems to defy governance.

At the start of the post-Ramadan Lebaran holiday, officials and businessmen troop to the presidential palace and to the homes of government leaders and other senior figures to give and receive forgiveness for the past year's sins.

What does Mr Widodo do? Instead of holding an open house at his official residence in Jakarta's old-rich Menteng district, he went out to sit and chat with the common folk in the city's five different municipalities.

He and his family also followed the Lebaran tradition of returning to their home town - in this case the Central Java city of Solo, where he was mayor for seven successful years until his landslide victory in the Jakarta election last September.

Mr Widodo's subsequent role on the PDI-P regional campaign team has allowed him to burnish his own image in this year's gubernatorial elections in West, Central and East Java, Indonesia's three most populous electorates with 98 million eligible voters.

That's about half of the national total.

I've never bought into the widely held idea that Mr Widodo should continue as Jakarta governor so he can solve all its problems, traffic congestion and seasonal flooding being the two priorities.

Let's face it, he can't.

It takes coordination with the governors of neighbouring West Java and Banten provinces to do that, and if there's something Indonesian officials aren't good at, it is coordination. Involving more than two entities in any endeavour is usually a recipe for failure.

Perhaps the better argument is to say that the only way he can really make a real difference in Jakarta is by becoming the country's President. After all, it is the central government that should be doing more to act as an effective coordinator.

Having said that, Mr Widodo and his "bad cop" cohort, deputy governor Basuki Purnama, have probably done more than any of their predecessors in such a short time.

What they do in Jakarta may not affect voters living in other parts of Java. But it is Mr Widodo's "can do" spirit that keeps him in the national media and at the forefront of electoral thinking.

Launching the long-delayed mass transit rail system and getting the inner-city monorail project back on track are examples, as is his shake-up of the city's entrenched bureaucracy.

There have been other deft touches too. One was to use Lebaran, when everyone was out of town, to clean out the streetside stalls that had turned the Tanah Abang market district into one of the city's worst choke points and a focal point for crime.

Some commentators feel the 52-year-old Mr Widodo has plenty of time and should wait till the next elections in 2019. That makes as much sense as those who feel he needs more time to prove his mettle on the national stage.

A lot can change in five years and surely, after a decade in the political wilderness - and with Dr Yudhoyono's graft-ridden majority Democrat Party wilting by the day - PDI-P has the best chance it has ever had of getting back in power.

Even Ms Megawati, not the most astute of politicians, must see that. With the Kompas poll showing PDI-P's popularity climbing from 13.3 per cent to 23.6 per cent since last December, it is far ahead of previous leader Golkar on 16 per cent and Gerinda on 13.6 per cent.

thane.cawdor@gmail.com

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.