Jokowi a Sign of Institutional Maturity
Taking a chance on an unknown a sign of confidence for Indonesia
16 May 2014
By: Brad Nelson

As has been forecasted for months now, Indonesia’s upcoming July 9 presidential election is rising star and Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo’s to lose. He’s the frontrunner in the polls and the most popular politician in the country.

His appeal is fairly straightforward.  Jokowi, as Widodo is widely known, is young and charismatic, particularly relative to the septuagenarians that usually dominate positions of leadership in Indonesia.

He has executive experience as a mayor in Solo and a governor in Jakarta, which means he knows how to manage and oversee a bureaucracy. Jokowi has a track record of getting things done. Among other things, his administrations have made impressive progress in improving infrastructure and access to health care.

Furthermore, Jokowi seems to have deftly infused his campaign and political career with a personal touch and flair, as he’s demonstrated the ability and willingness to connect with ordinary citizens of all walks of life. His visits to poor areas, local businesses and government offices, reaching out to people, are clear examples of such behavior. 

These qualities have breathed new life into the presidential election, generating a sense of excitement. And certainly, they give hope to Indonesians who would like to see change in national politics. As a newcomer on the national political scene, many citizens see his ascension as a sign that Indonesia will begin to shift away from a political system dominated by cloistered, corrupt insiders.  

There has been one problem, however. Jokowi has been awfully vague and cryptic about his political beliefs and vision. At bottom, nobody, including Indonesian experts, really has any idea what he stands for and the kinds of policies he’s likely to pursue. This has left him open to criticism and questions, on a number of fronts.

Is Jokowi secretive? Why is he so reluctant to reveal specifics about his political agenda? Is he simply an empty suit? Perhaps Jokowi is beholden to senior level big wigs in the PDP-I, such as party chief Megawati Sukarnoputri, and thus he really doesn’t control his political platform?

My guess is that Jokowi doesn’t have anything up his sleeve, so to speak. Instead, he’s simply playing it safe, being ultra-defensive in his campaigning. He knows victory is his, as long as he doesn’t commit any major gaffes. As a result, for the most part, he’s resorted to giving oratorical and written bromides and pithy statements in public.

On a general level, we can speculate whether this type of opaqueness and vagueness is good for democracy and democratic elections in particular. The short answer is no. More information is always better. It allows citizens to make more confident decisions at the ballot box. Additionally, there is a normative component. Citizens have the right to know what political candidates know and think and believe.

A vote of confidence

All of this applies to Indonesia today. All of that said, however, there is a subtle, hidden upshot here, one that shows how far and how fast Indonesia’s political system has traveled. In my view, the rise of Jokowi is a vote of confidence in favor of Indonesia’s political institutions. Why? Indonesian citizens are secure enough in their country’s political, judicial and economic institutions to take a chance on him. These institutions are developed and durable enough to withstand an inexperienced candidate taking the leadership mantle. Put another way, the presence of increasingly competent and interdependent domestic institutions reduces the risk in voting for a Jokowi presidency.

Absent strong domestic institutions, I suspect, Indonesian voters would not be so willing to opt for a raw, green candidate to serve as the highest elected official in the land. In such a case, voters would probably look for someone more tethered to the state who’s a safer bet to uphold the political, social and economic status quo.

Quite frankly, this is one—though not the only—reason that former Indonesian military officials have played a big role in Indonesian politics post-1998. Voters have opted for people with ties to the state and a vested interest in stability during the country’s transition to democracy.


Finding the boundaries

Soon enough, Jokowi – assuming he wins, of course – will find that Indonesia’s institutions will outline the boundaries under which he will operate. Of course, this means that his ability to reconfigure the political system in a more progressive direction, as some wish, is not especially strong. Meantime, though, this also means that Jokowi can’t run roughshod over existing institutions, undermining democratic laws and norms and taking the country on a retrograde path. 

Jokowi’s rise has often been compared to America’s Barack Obama. Overall, the comparison isn’t nice and neat, for a number of reasons. But regarding my point above, the comparison is very apt.

American liberals and independents, tired of a decade of war and a sagging economy under George W. Bush and his Republican Party, took a chance on a rising star, a freshman Senator from Illinois. Republicans and conservatives decried his candidacy and eventual election. They criticized his “extreme liberal” ideas and his brief tenure in politics, arguing that the US public was making a huge gamble in electing Obama. But the reality is that the gamble was not nearly as large the American right suggested, and most US voters knew that in 2008.

Of course, it’s very questionable whether Obama really is a radical liberal. But if he is, America’s entrenched domestic institutions have prevented him from taking the US in a far left direction. Sure, on health care, Obama did score a victory for liberals. But on a host of other issues, both domestically and internationally, his administration looks more like George W. Bush’s than the one led by Jimmy Carter. Push back from Congress, interest groups and public opinion has ensured that Team Obama doesn’t stray too far, either to the right or left, from the political center.

This same picture will play itself out in Indonesia. If elected, Jokowi will be bound to varying degrees by a web of domestic institutions, thereby minimizing the risk of his supporting or drafting particularly radical policies. Voters can take comfort in that.

Going forward, the bigger issue will be whether Jokowi expresses any frustration over the limitations on his ability to influence the political and policymaking process in line with his interests and beliefs. After all, this is something Obama, a former political neophyte like Jokowi, quickly discovered in his first term as president and has had to cope with since then.

Brad Nelson is president and co-founder of Center for World Conflict and Peace, a research organization, and an adjunct professor of international relations at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, Illinois




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