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The Jokowi way to development

Indonesia’s most promising politician, Mr Joko Widodo, who was elected Governor of Jakarta province in September, looks like Mr Barack Obama: Lean and coolly self-possessed in a way that seems as much Bogartian as Javanese.

Mr Joko Widodo, Governor of Jakarta. BLOOMBERG

Mr Joko Widodo, Governor of Jakarta. BLOOMBERG

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Indonesia’s most promising politician, Mr Joko Widodo, who was elected Governor of Jakarta province in September, looks like Mr Barack Obama: Lean and coolly self-possessed in a way that seems as much Bogartian as Javanese.

Emerging out of nowhere, and serenely vaulting over the heads of establishment politicians, he embodies the possibility of change. But here the resemblance to the United States President ends.

Mr Obama is fighting to win re-election. Mr Joko, popularly known as Jokowi, enjoyed hugely successful terms in office as the Mayor of the Central Javanese city of Solo. Fulfilling most of his promises, he was re-elected with a voting percentage — 90 per cent — more often enjoyed by dictators in the Central Asian “stans”.

When I met Mr Joko in Solo recently, as he was waiting to be sworn in as the Chief Executive of Jakarta, he explained his electoral triumph. He said he had preferred to work from “bottom-up” rather than “top-down”.

In a city of small merchants and traders, he had made it easier to procure business permits and licences. He had supported local businessmen and traditional crafts and industries such as batik. In a country notorious for corruption and crony capitalism, he had favoured small-food-cart owners over global convenience store chains and shopping malls.


Such a “bottom-up” record benefitted him greatly in Jakarta, which has many underprivileged, rural migrants-cum-entrepreneurs from Java. In Indonesia, as in India, economic liberalisation has favoured big businessmen, who have used their proximity to politicians to garner a disproportionate share of national resources and income. The last Governor of Jakarta and Mr Joko’s rival, for instance, turned out to own a Van Gogh painting.

At one level, Mr Joko’s tactics remind you of populist politicians elsewhere in Asia: People who built up vote banks among the poor majority by railing against big businessmen and their political allies.

To this category belongs Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra as well as the Chief Minister of the Indian state of West Bengal, Ms Mamata Banerjee, who stands perennially ready to thwart the most tentative economic initiative by India’s central government.

But, unlike Thaksin, Mr Joko appears to have no shady links with the world of big business. And, unlike Ms Banerjee, his populism is more than some uncreative rabble-rousing.

Rather, Mr Joko has quietly focused on developing a “people-centered economy”. This involves helping to upgrade traditional crafts and skills so that local products can compete with imports from China, while also deepening regional identities (a distinctive feature of central Javanese culture).

Mr Joko’s success has predictably attracted Indonesia’s establishment parties. There is much talk in Jakarta that Mr Joko might stand for the presidential election due in 2014.

But Mr Joko himself dismisses this speculation. He told me that he has a job to attend to in Jakarta. And it is an unenviably formidable one. Jakarta is the chaotic setting, simultaneously, of floods, slums, poverty, crime, subsiding land, and some of the world’s most notorious traffic jams.

According to Mr Joko, Jakarta needs not more roads and freeways — the hundreds of new car owners every day would quickly turn those into parking lots as well — but more public mass transport. A monorail project, long dormant, may now be revived.


Mr Joko’s rise points to some major shifts in Indonesian politics. In recent years, a fast-growing economy and a decentralised administrative structure have empowered such figures as bupatis (regents) and walikotas (mayors), who were previously nominated to their posts by the central government in Jakarta.

Plundering generous budgets and selling off national resources, many of these autonomous officials have confirmed Indonesia’s reputation as one of the world’s most corrupt countries.

But others such as Mr Joko and Surabaya Mayor, Ms Tri Rismaharini, represent what Mr Karim Raslan, one of the keenest observers of South-east Asia, calls “a distinct but important part of Indonesia’s future”.

This is true in more ways than one. Mr Joko’s appeal in Jakarta transcended the ethnic and religious passions that many of Indonesia’s political class are often eager to stoke.

In the world’s largest Muslim country, Mr Joko took a calculated risk in choosing as his running mate a bupati-turned-parliamentarian named Mr Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (widely known as Ahok), who is both Christian and Chinese.

Together, Mr Joko and Mr Basuki fended off many malicious attacks on their allegedly un-Islamic outlook. They were helped by an increasingly mature electorate — one that distrusts venal and inept politicians more than it thrills to invocations of religious and ethnic solidarity.

But Mr Joko’s ascent also has another, larger meaning.

In recent years, the energies unleashed by mass democracy and global capitalism have frequently collided across Asia. Mr Joko shows one way out of that impasse by seeking to assist an indigenous entrepreneurial class — one that can hold its own against globally resourced competitors. By working with small businessmen, he overturns a general preference across post-colonial Asia for top-down technologies of nation-building, in which the heavily centralised state oversees economic growth, through either state-owned enterprises or big, private corporations.

As early as the 1970s, the Indonesian thinker Soedjatmoko had warned against the heedless technocracy that opened up massive disparities between the centre and the periphery and rural and urban areas while destroying native self-confidence. “We will,” Soedjatmoko wrote presciently, “have to turn developmental thinking upside down”.

This is what Mr Joko seems to be doing. His form of localisation seems more imperative as global capitalism falters, exposing its socioeconomic contradictions and steep environmental costs.

Populous, diverse and largely agrarian societies such as Indonesia always had to find their own way of being modern. Mr Joko is now advancing this necessary but unconscionably delayed experiment in a chaotic and still half-modern city. His success will mean real “change” — and it will have major implications for not only Jakarta or Indonesia but also much of Asia. BLOOMBERG

Pankaj Mishra, the author of From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia, is a Bloomberg View columnist based in London and Mashobra, India.

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