Widodo no shoo-in to lead Indonesia
By Keith Loveard
JAKARTA - According to mystical beliefs in Java, the Indonesian island's volcanoes erupt to mark the advent of significant change. If recent months are any indication, with a huge eruption of Kelud and more modest outbursts from Merapi and Slamet, then big change is indeed around the corner.
If this "big change" is the election of Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo as the country's next president, what remains to be seen is whether he will - like volcanoes with their mix of disaster and fertility - bring good or bad for Indonesia and its people.
There is still a strong chance that those who don't believe in the
power of Java's gods - or who are convinced they are shaking the ground for another candidate - will decide that Widodo is not the man to lead the country. A number of factors combine to weaken his chances of success in the July 9 presidential poll.
Widodo and the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) he represents first have to face the legislative polls on April 9. Many analysts believe that party chairwoman and former president Megawati Sukarnoputri demonstrated her ability to put the needs of the country before her own ambitions by naming Widodo as the party's candidate for the presidency.
Many of the analysts believe that the announcement of Widodo's nomination on March 14 will lift the party's performance at the legislative polls, and PDI-P itself is hoping to gain around 30% of the vote, if not more.
Should the party win big in the splintered electoral race, it will be able to name a member of its own ranks to run as its vice-presidential candidate as well. There lies danger. Over-confidence could cause a repeat of the situation in the 1999 election, when PDI-P produced a similarly impressive result in the legislative poll - 33.76% - and then lost the presidency.
The situation is different this time around. In 1999, the president was still chosen by the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), the country's highest legislative body which then acted as an electoral college.
While PDI-P stood above the fray of party negotiations because it thought it had the vote wrapped up, Amien Rais and his new National Mandate Party (PAN) lobbied hard for an alternative candidate to Megawati. The parties, joined in the then so-called "Central Axis", settled on Abdurrahman Wahid, the chairman of the Nahdlatul Ulama religious group and incidentally a close friend of Megawati's.
That friendship didn't count for much in the end, with Wahid emerging as a dark horse and stealing the election. This was an act which Megawati, although elected as his vice president, never forgave. She only became president in 2001 by default when Wahid was impeached for incompetence.
While this time around the president is chosen by direct popular vote, PDI-P appears set on a course that could see it fall into a similar trap, with the other parties maneuvering against it and snatching the majority of the vote.
The question is who would they maneuver around? Not the unpopular Aburizal Bakrie, who polls have shown has little chance of taking the presidency. That leaves Prabowo Subianto, the chief patron of the Greater Indonesia Movement (Gerindra). Wary though many in the other parties may be of the former general, the promise of a taste of power could lead many politicians to throw off their reservations and join him.
The Jakarta governor's record is not spotless and many voters, particularly in the capital itself, are disappointed with him for abandoning them only 18 months into a five-year term. The biggest thing in Widodo's favor is his style. His visits to poorer parts of the capital - known as blusukan (impromptu visits) in Javanese - have won him immense media coverage.
He is immensely popular and his touch extends down to the lowest levels of society. Yet it is questionable whether Widodo's direct style of governance could be applied at a higher political level. His security detail is unlikely to be keen on frequent and random blusukan.
It is also still too early to judge Widodo's performance in the capital. A study by Kompas daily published on March 15 showed that the city's residents don't believe there has been much real change.
Still, as Widodo says himself, he won't be leaving Jakarta if he does become president, because the intervention of the central government is essential if real change is to occur in the city. However, there has been criticism about the consistency and sustainability of his programs.
A telling illustration is his short-lived success in relocating street vendors in the Tanah Abang market area in Central Jakarta. After only six months, traders, complaining about a lack of customers in the Block G market set aside for them, have begun to return to the street again.
Eep Saefulloh Fatah, a political scientist from the University of Indonesia, says Widodo's short term in Jakarta is actually a bonus for his bid for the presidency. "Widodo has only governed Jakarta for a year and a half and has not arrived at the 'delivery' phase but is still at the 'expectation' phase," Fatah wrote in an op-ed in Kompas daily on March 17.
Currently, the majority of the public still judges Widodo based on their perception that he is "the answer to people's expectations", rather than on what he has actually achieved, suggested the academic.
According to Fatah, people see Widodo as brave and honest - qualities they have been looking for. The 52-year-old is seen as having the integrity and courage to take non-populist decisions, such as relocating people from riverbank areas in order to clear floodplains.
Wawan Mas'udi of Gadjah Mada University, writing in the Australian website The Interpreter, credits Widodo for his health programs for the poor, instituted in both his term as mayor of Solo in central Java, and in Jakarta. Education was another area where Widodo reached out to all of his constituents, not just the wealthy.
Mas'udi recounts being told by the leader of the rickshaw drivers' union in Solo that "[Widodo] arrived as leader to look after us, the little people, (and therefore) we are not worried any more when we are sick, and also our kids are guaranteed to go to school."
The political scientist also praises Widodo's commitment to participatory governance. In Solo, he also met with street vendors who were causing traffic problems and convinced them to move. The "non-elitist and non-bureaucratic style of leadership" was popular, winning Widodo 90% of the vote when he stood for re-election in Solo in 2009.
One activist was not convinced that there was much substance to Widodo. "He questioned whether [Widodo's] style of governing had really transformed patrimonial relations between the state and society, or was just a new populist way for elites to retain control in a democratic context."
Populist or reformer?
The initial business reaction to Widodo's nomination was strongly positive. The stock market's Jakarta Composite Index of shares jumped by 3.2% on the announcement of his candidacy, although investors took profits over the next few days, eroding the gain. Fears have also emerged that Widodo will not be his own man, and that would enact the PDI-P's often irrational populist policies.
Still, he has shown during his short term in Jakarta that he is aware of the issues facing the economy. Long marred by red tape and illicit fees, the Jakarta administration has gradually been transformed into an effectively functioning government, although some attribute most of the success to the bullying of Deputy Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama.
Widodo has not been shy about demoting officials seen to be inefficient, or about acting on corruption allegations. Incidentally, he has also stood up for Christian officials who have come under attack from radical Muslim groups.
This suggests that Widodo would do his best to make sure that justice is applied properly, according to the law and the constitution. That would please a business community tired of having to grease palms to get licenses and watching policy shift like the wind.
He is also keen to institute reforms. Fauzi Ichsan, Indonesia economist for Standard Chartered Bank, told GlobeAsia magazine that the business community would welcome him. The business community wants a president who will tackle structural issues head on, such as implementing the land clearance law, which is critical for major infrastructure projects, he said.
One of the best aspects of Widodo's term as governor has been his determination to get major infrastructure projects underway. A start has been made on the MRT rail system from South Jakarta and while the monorail project seems to have stalled again, that appears to be the fault of the contractor, not the city administration.
His work on resolving the severe floods that increasingly paralyze the capital is also bearing fruit. One expatriate consultant notes while this year's precipitation was the highest for 21 years, the area flooded was only around 20% of the city area, compared with 70% in the severe 2007 floods. That suggests that Widodo's work is producing results.
There is also evidence that Widodo is prepared to seek radical alternatives to the country's approaching infrastructure crisis. His emphasis in Jakarta has been on mass transport solutions to the traffic woes, and while they remain a work in progress, they are moving in a better direction than the alternative of more and more private vehicles.
On December 18 he said he had asked the central government to stop selling subsidized fuel in the capital in a bid to cut the number of cars on the road. The fuel subsidy would be better spent on infrastructure so all residents could enjoy it, the governor added. That indicates he would be prepared to give the country the medicine it needs: an end to misdirected energy subsidies.
Of course there will be costs. "It seems [Widodo's] policy is pro-growth through stronger investment via infrastructure projects," Arthur Lau, Hong Kong-based head of Asia ex-Japan fixed income at PineBridge told Bloomberg. "We should expect upward pressure on rates and inflation as the government may need more funding for project development."
Robert Prior-Wandesforde, an economist at Credit Suisse Group in Singapore, cautions against assuming a Widodo presidency will usher in a period of business-friendly, structural economic changes. "By associating himself with the PDI-P party his approach is likely to be center-left, socialist in nature and not particularly pro-business," he wrote in a research note.
Party pressures, family matters
There is also the question of what role Megawati would play in a Widodo presidency. Would she consider herself the grand dame of Indonesian politics and order her nominee to do as she wishes? If so, the country could see more populist moves that make little economic sense, like her enactment of the 2003 Labor Law that continues to make life hard for business.
There is a growing fear that Widodo would just be a puppet-president with Megawati pulling the strings. As a good Javanese, Widodo will naturally tend to demur to his elders. It would be deemed unethical if he refused to comply with the behest of his elders, while on the other hand he may feel the need to secure 'restu', or approval, from those elders before making any major step.
Then there is the fractious PDI-P itself. If Widodo does take the presidency, the party hacks will demand their share of power, insisting on filling the ministries with their own members rather than handing them over to technocrats. While Widodo has shown himself to be tough with bureaucrats, it remains to be seen if he would be able to stand up to Megawati and the party elite.
Some political observers believe the endorsement reflects the PDI-P's metamorphosis from a family-run affair to a modern political party but there is also a contrary view, by which the descendants and followers of founding President Sukarno would insist on keeping the party true to its bloodlines, perhaps by saddling Widodo with one of Megawati's children as his vice-presidential candidate.
The choice of a running mate will be important in convincing voters that Widodo can lead the country. There are plenty of pressure groups that will want to share the spotlight with him. A number of retired generals held a press conference immediately after his nomination saying they supported him.
They included Luhut Panjaitan, who is also a leading figure in the Golkar Party hierarchy, forcing other party officials to quickly state that the former general was merely giving a personal opinion.
Panjaitan added in comments to the media that Aburizal Bakrie, Golkar's official candidate, was also a good choice.
A strong Muslim figure would add credibility to a Widodo ticket. A recent poll showed that among figures seen as strong Muslim characters, former vice president Jusuf Kalla is the most popular. Kalla, the chairman of Golkar before Bakrie, has not ruled out standing again for office, and choosing him would split the Golkar vote, with its members less than enthusiastic about Bakrie's chances.
The armed forces will want to know that its interests will be looked after and the spending spree they have enjoyed through the second term of the Susilo Bambung Yudhoyono government will continue. There is no shortage of figures to choose from, including Yudhoyono's brother-in-law, former Army commander Pramono Edhie Wibowo. Choosing him would hand the Widodo ticket support from the Democratic Party.
Add to either of these combinations an offer of a senior ministerial post to another figure from the minor parties and a Widodo presidency would have a workable majority in parliament.
Electorally, it would make far more sense to choose a running mate from one of the major pressure groups outside of the PDI-P itself. That would win the ticket more votes than a pure PDI-P pairing. Megawati will have the last word on the choice, and she may ignore reality and insist on one of her own family members.
The chosen one?
Those who still believe in Javanese mysticism appear to believe that Widodo is "satrio piningit", the noble leader predicted by soothsayer Raja Jayabaya in the 12th century. Pollster Sukardi Rinakit says he laughed when he read the description of the satrio piningit again.
"At one stage in the future what was once the Majapahit kingdom will be more just and prosperous when it is ruled by a child born close to Mt Lawu, whose home is by the side of a river, who when he is small is forced to earn a living by searching for wood, with a thin body like Kresna and a hard-headed character like Baladewa...".
The description fits Widodo to a tee, said Rinakit.
The Javanese have long believed that the prediction will come true and they will be ruled by a just king (ratu adil). Disappointed by the lackluster performance of both Megawati and Yudhoyono, their hopes may be realized this time. Whether it will be Widodo is, however, a matter for all the voters of Indonesia to decide.
Keith Loveard is senior analyst for Jakarta-based Concord Consulting. With additional reporting by Shinta Eka.