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Indonesia’s New President Infuriates Elites with Thrifty Populism

Jokowi’s humble ways are a new hope in a country with a history of corrupt rulers.

Just a month into his first term, Indonesia’s eccentric new President Joko Widodo set a seemingly odd tone when he issued a November 2014 decree to his country’s bureaucrats and politicians about their eating habits. From now on, he declared, these individuals should, during official meetings and political galas, only eat street foods like cassava, steamed corn, and yam cakes. Furthermore, he declared, officials would be limited to 400 guests at their official soirees, and their 2015 travel budgets would be slashed.


In truth, this is Widodo (or Jokowi, as he’s often called) showcasing three key points of his presidency: curbing the excesses of the country’s political elite, cutting budget to make room for social programs and infrastructure development, and highlighting his humble roots to rebuild trust in the government.

In the same vein, when Jokowi traveled to Singapore last month to attend his son’s high school graduation, he flew economy class, claiming that the presidential jet was for official matters only, and standing in line for the metal detector with the rest of us schmucks. Some have argued that these moves are just the stunts of a secretly ostentatious kleptocrat, milking the public’s goodwill for his own political gain. To these critics, one can grant that Indonesian airline Garuda’s economy class was voted the world’s best in 2013. But everything about Jokowi’s past and political record suggests that he’s the real deal, bent on reforming Indonesia’s politics and politicians.

Right now Indonesia is in desperate need of a cultural colonic. From 1966 to 1998, citizens lived under the dictatorial thumb of Suharto (one name, like a very bloody Cher), only to find their subsequent democratic enthusiasm and mobilization rewarded by 16 years of rule by a disconnected, corrupt, and nepotistic elite class of generals and near-royals. By 2011, an anti-corruption body that had formed seven years earlier recorded at least 300 cases of high-level graft, and 51 percent of the population had extremely negative perceptions of politicians. As of 2014, many in Indonesia feared that they had no hope of seeing anyone other than establishment favorite, ex-general, and Suharto son-in-law Prabowo Subianto elected, perpetuating this status quo.

Then along came Jokowi, an everyman who magically trounced the run-of-the-mill establishment candidate in the polls, then successfully defended himself against a full-frontal court contestation of his victory.

Indonesian street food doesn't exactly look like a punishment

Born in a shack near the river in Solo (aka Surakarta) at the center of Java, Jokowi (originally Mulyono—it’s common to change names in the region) grew up with humility. To pay for his own education, he became a carpenter and then started his own furniture import-export company; his reputation as an honest dealer without slimy corporate connections allowed Jokowi to win a series of increasingly important elections in a meteoric rise. A mixture of bootstrap self-reliance, gentle kindness, and endurance, his story is the stuff of movies—and so his life story was adapted into the 2013 film Jokowi, well timed for the 2014 elections.

Working off of his history, Jokowi made people-centric policies the center point of his aggressively anti-corrupt and humble political career. After being named one of the top 10 majors in the country in 2008 (and being mistaken for a driver when he showed up for an interview about the award without an entourage, in plainclothes), he went on to earn third place in the 2012 World Mayor Prize competition, then to serve from 2012 to 2013 as the Governor of Jakarta. As governor, he proved his ability to transform a crime-ridden city into a cultural and tourist center, revamp infrastructure, and develop programs for slum dwellers. During his tenure as mayor, he did not draw a salary, and as governor and presidential candidate notoriously often went about barefoot chatting with average folks, maintaining that his connection to the people helped him develop strong policies.

Yet after sailing into power on a platform of common-man policies, developed through a common man’s life and ethos, Jokowi found himself facing the entrenched remainder of the old political class. These flacks seem determined to stymie Jokowi’s attempts at cutting costly fuel subsidies to free up funds for development, put him under shaming investigations, and muck up the electoral system to prevent another such man from being elected in the future. Whether or not they’ll succeed in undercutting Jokowi, nobody knows, but the new president’s attacks on their expensive catered parties can be seen as a solid shot aimed at showing them who’s boss, proving to the Indonesian people he is who he claims, and demonstrating a will to scrape and save every cent.

No one knows how Jokowi will fly, not just because he’s taking on the old elite, but because he’s also taking an aggressive diplomatic stance, breaking Indonesia’s recent thousand friends, zero enemies approach. In the process of defending national self-interest, in early December, he went as far as to start sinking foreign ships fishing illegally in Indonesian waters, holding that this should cause no diplomatic problems—he sees it as an issue of internal food security against individuals breaking the law. Policies like this, if they lack nuance and suitable backroom dealing to smooth over ruffled feathers, could play well with the public but convince the international community to back conservative elites in their attempts to undermine Jokowi. If that ends up being the case, his holistic approach, a novel experiment in Indonesia, could fail.

But no matter what happens to Jokowi, his reputation and image will endure. Few policies, like the promotion of street foods and restrictions on excess, with any luck, will now be expected of politicians from a public that knows this reality can exist. Even if Jokowi’s a dud when it comes to overhauling oil policy or approaching Australia, if these policies last he will have changed local political culture forever. He will have created a more humble Indonesian official. And even if that doesn’t lead to the election of another Jokowi down the line, it does perhaps increase the chance of a people’s champion again winning over members of the waning, spoiled elite.

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