Small-town mayor brings Indonesia to the crossroads

By Shaun Levine

Joko Widodo's win in the September 21 Jakarta mayoral election was a momentous step forward for the forces of reform in Indonesia's increasingly stagnant political scene. The luster will soon wear off, however, unless Widodo can translate his victory into fixing the mess he has inherited: failing infrastructure, immovable traffic, water supply issues, and a rebellious regional government, just to name a few. If his time as mayor of the small town of Solo is any indication, Widodo may be up to the challenge. Widodo improved Solo's transportation networks and governance, and reduced the level of corruption endemic in Indonesian politics. However, in order to effect change in the big city of Jakarta, where he is now a de-facto national leader, Widodo will need to roll up the sleeves of his signature checkered shirts.

Widodo's victory could be an important turning point for Indonesia. The early head-first rush into democracy and reformism in 1998 has given way to the patronage politics so common during the days of Suharto. Bureaucratic reforms, the fight against corruption, and attempts to improve governance have largely come to a standstill -- which largely benefits the remnants of Suharto's New Order regime that cling to power and look set to compete with one another in the 2014 presidential election. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's ten-year mandate is coming to an end, with the early promise of reform having been snuffed out by reactionary forces. Even with the backing of more than 60 percent of voters, change and reform have not been easy for Indonesia's first directly elected president.    

Going forward, Indonesian voters will have to choose between elevating new reformers such as Widodo, who himself may become a presidential candidate in 2014, and the crop of leaders from the New Order who see 2014 as a must-win election; most may be too old to compete in 2019.

For these leaders, Widodo's win -- which appeared unlikely at the start of the campaign in the early summer -- should be seen as a wakeup call. The proven tactic of pandering to voters, and in some cases buying their votes, may not be the panacea it was in the past. Neither will efforts to translate a growing sense of confidence in Indonesia's future, based on its international standing and strong economic growth, into economic nationalism. Voters are well aware that the reform movement has largely stalled, and that current leaders want to chip away at democracy so that regional governors like Widodo are appointed and not elected.

But the real impetus is on Widodo and his like-minded counterparts, who have overcome the hurdle of reaching office but will now face the bureaucratic challenges, and temptations, of the reformers that came before them. Promises made on the campaign trail mean nothing when gridlock and animosity seek to undermine reform; compromise is a hallmark of democracy, but not when it benefits the few to the disadvantage of the many.

Against all odds, Widodo was able to show that honesty and a proven track record of reform could overcome overwhelming challenges in campaign financing and political party support. The win also demonstrates that Indonesian politics, which is mired in patronage and money, doesn't have to remain so. This is a democracy that will have its fits and starts, but will more than likely rise up to become a leader in the global community commensurate with its population and wealth.

The presidential election in 2014 is likely to be the last for the Suharto-era leaders, many of whom have witnessed Widodo's victory with envy and some of whom have even benefited from supporting his campaign. The chances of a dark-horse candidate such as Widodo winning in 2014 are still slim. But voters' choice in the Jakarta mayoral election has moved Indonesia a step closer to realizing its much-heralded democratic and economic potential.

Shaun Levine is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Asia practice.