For the first time, democracy in Indonesia might not be something of a sham.
We are living in Indonesia in a fascinating time, as 2014 is an election year (both parliamentary and Presidential). That might sound reasonably interesting anywhere, but in the Indonesian context, democratic elections are still somewhat novel.
After independence in 1945, Indonesia had two “presidents” — essentially dictators — in 53 years. After the departure of the kleptocrat dictator Suharto in 1998, new presidents were (legally) appointed by the legislature until, in 2004, the country held its first direct presidential election. In the 10 years since, only one man has been elected. Now, as he steps down, the door opens for change.
Thus far, three candidates lead the charge, each an icon of some sector of Indonesian culture: The former military general known for human-rights abuses (Prabowo Subianto); a billionaire business magnate embroiled in an environmental scandal (Aburizal Bakrie); and the small, quiet, man of the people, the mayor of Jakarta (Joko Widodo).
Widodo, affectionately known as Jokowi, has been touted as the front-runner by most polls. He is a favorite of international media (like The Economist) but he is challenging a powerful establishment. This is the first time that Indonesia has seen a viable presidential candidate who did not come from a small group of powerful elites, and that still makes many people uncomfortable.
As we rode through a small town in eastern Java last week, Eddie, a young man who works at a hotel, explained that he thought Prabowo was most likely to win. Eddie does not like Prabowo, but he believes Indonesians want a strong leader, and that means someone from the military.
Jokowi has earned the support of some key players in traditional politics. Popular former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president, broke with Prabowo to support Jokowi when he announced his candidacy in March.
Some of Jokowi’s biggest fans — Jakartans — do not support his bid for president. One of my co-workers explained, “I am angry at Jokowi and won’t vote for him this year. … I voted for him to be governor of Jakarta and now he wants to abandon us. What about his responsibilities?” Many Jakartans have told me the prefer to keep Jokowi as governor (i.e., mayor), where he can make a substantial difference for the troubled megacity and its metro area, home to 28 million people. They argue that as president, bogged down by coalition politics and bureaucracy, he will lose his ability to get things done. I believe most of those people will vote for Jokowi in the end rather than watch other candidates win.
His popularity is palpable. For a politician, he tends to travel with little security. He meets with people in the streets, showing up unannounced in crowded public places or at public works projects and wearing inexpensive clothing. He is known for listening rather than talking. The public loves him, and often will reach out to touch him or put his hand to their foreheads, in a traditional Indonesian sign of respect. Jokowi has inspired an exciting energy around this campaign that may draw new voters out of the shadows.
Our driver explained that he has not voted in the past two elections. “I didn’t like any of the options before … but now with Jokowi running, maybe I will vote for him,” he said. Jokowi has also inspired the support of Indonesia’s burgeoning young population, with a strong command of social media: I actually received a campaign text message from JKW4P (Jokowi for President) yesterday. Jokowi has been compared many times to Obama, for being the outsider, ready to change the status quo, representing the youth and the modern, social media era. As a result, there are fears that he will fall into Obama’s trap as well. Shirking the status quo of vested interests is easier said than done.
This Wednesday, April 9, Indonesia will hold parliamentary elections. Presidential elections follow in July. Until then, the excitement will only grow in the story of Indonesia’s democracy. We’ll do our best to keep sharing.