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A new era

Grahame LucasJuly 22, 2014

Two weeks after the presidential elections, the Indonesia election commission has announced the results of the poll: Joko Widodo won by a narrow margin. That's good for the country, says DW's Grahame Lucas.

Joko Widodo holding hands with supporters. (Photo: REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)
Image: Reuters

Joko "Jokowi" Widodo stands for most of what Indonesia needs right now: he is a representative of a younger generation and owes nothing to the entrenched, corrupt, moneyed elite which ran the country during the Suharto dictatorship and have controlled democratic governments which have held office since then. He is unusual in political circles in that he was not educated at an expensive private school abroad and has not amassed a fortune. His modest lifestyle is a refreshing change to the political landscape of the sprawling Southeast Asian country of 17,000 islands. His rise to prominence in the world's largest Moslem country from humble beginnings as a furniture salesman has been meteoric.

As mayor of Solo, a city on Java, and governor of Jakarta, the capital, he quickly established his reputation as an effective administrator. He is a self-styled man of the people, a politician who – by all accounts - takes a genuine interest in the wellbeing and concerns of ordinary people. He has sought to solve every day problems like providing health care for the poor, organizing the collection of trash and fighting corruption. It is this record that explains his huge popularity, especially among the young. More than anything else, the 53-year-old stands for Indonesia's new democratic movement. He offers hope for the future in a country afflicted by poverty and corruption.

Rejecting the old establishment

The alternative facing Indonesian voters was to choose Prabowo Subianto, a 62-year-old former general and successful businessman, as president. This would have been a vote to go backwards into the future. Prabowo has always been a highly controversial figure, a representative of times gone by, the last of the old elite who was once even married to dictator Suharto's daughter. Under Suharto, Prabowo commanded a notorious army unit suspected of massive human rights violations in East Timor and the abductions and murder of pro-democracy campaigners. With his reputation thus tainted, he fled the country only to return later when it was safe to do so.

Grahame Lucas. (Photo: DW/Per Henriksen)
DW's Grahame LucasImage: DW/P. Henriksen

Prabowo fought a slick and charismatic campaign with the support from both the establishment and the Moslem parties. His campaign was better financed than Jokowi's - thanks to his millionaire brother and support from a network of TV stations run by his allies from the old elite. Prabowo's nationalist rhetoric at mass rallies undoubtedly struck a nerve with some sections of the electorate.

Realizing that this was his last chance to win the presidency, Prabowo used all means at his disposal to secure victory. He uttered threats to roll back Indonesia's young democracy and abolish the direct election of the president. He also regularly boasted of being a strong leader of the kind the country needed. To underline these aspirations, he enlisted the services of a rock star dressed in a Nazi uniform to promote his campaign. To cap it all, Jokowi was smeared deliberately as being both a Christian and of Chinese origin. But it did not help. Clearly a majority of Indonesians realized that a vote for Prabowo would pose a serious threat to democracy and solve little.

Jokowi put to the test

Against this background it was not really surprising that Prabowo refused to concede defeat after exit polls showed him trailing Jokowi. He now intends to challenge the result of the election in court. This may be his good right, but it is hardly good for democracy.

But by electing Jokowo, Indonesians have taken a calculated risk. He is untested at the highest levels. As he does not belong to any of the country's political and business dynasties and shuns cronyism and political fixers alike, he may struggle to build the alliances he needs to make the government and Southeast Asia's largest economy work. His oratory does not inspire. Public displays of showmanship are not for him. This raises the question as to whether he can sell his message to voters in the coming months and years. It may also explain why the election outcome was so close.

The pressure will be on Jokowi right away. Like Barack Obama in 2008, whom he is often compared to in the media, Jokowi has promised much in the campaign without being too specific. Since winning the April 9 legislative elections with his Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, he has failed to present a clear vision of the future. During the campaign, he appeared markedly less nationalist and protectionist than his rival. He pledged to improve education and cut unnecessary subsidies. This should help the economy. But he must also tackle a series of different challenges like calls to limit the freedom of expression. And he must respond effectively to attacks on religious minorities and women's rights. As in Obama's case, much will depend on whether the opposition chooses constructive cooperation with Jokowi or destructive opposition.

There is much to be done and Jokowi has much to learn. But Indonesians have chosen a forward-looking man with impressive democratic credentials to solve their problems. That is a big step in the right direction. They are to be congratulated.