Indonesia is under the spell of ‘change’. Last Thursday 21 August the Constitutional Court confirmed that Joko Widodo, or Jokowi as he is commonly referred to, will be the new president of Indonesia for the next five years. For many, Jokowi and his political style represent a clean break with traditional politics, and although his popularity waned in the last few weeks due to a disorganised political campaign, he still enjoys great confidence among large sections of the country’s urban poor and middle class. Foreign observers waved him much praise as well: ‘His success will mean real ‘change’ – and it will have major implications for not only Jakarta or Indonesia but also much of Asia’, wrote the prominent Indian commentator Pankaj Mishra. Elsewhere, his rise to power was compared with that of Obama. Who is this man, who does he represent and what does ‘change’ mean in his words? Can he bring about a revolution in Indonesian politics, or is he indeed a new Obama?
Before we proceed, we need to recognise that whatever can be said about Jokowi and the probability that he brings real change, is beyond the affirmation that his win is a hundred times more preferable than a victory of his contestant, retired general Prabowo Subianto. The latter, about whom later more, is a military strongman from the years of the Suharto dictatorship. Many hold him accountable for kidnappings and tortures of activists and intellectuals during the turbulent fall of Suharto in 1998, and his army units were also involved in bloody massacres in East-Timor and West-Papua. His political campaign, in which he stressed the necessity of a strong leader for Indonesia, proved that Prabowo has not changed his political leanings very much since. Therefore, the election of Jokowi can be rightfully felt as a relief.
That said, most analyses ascribe the rise to power of Jokowi, who currently still holds the office of governorship of Jakarta, to an effective combination of energetic action in some pressing issues in Jakarta, a remarkably accessible attitude towards communities and social organisations, and a clean record of corruption and cronyism. Unlike most other politicians and former-presidents, Jokowi had no political backing of dark powers, such as the very powerful army, political parties of the old order such as Golkar, or financial powers and big capital, until the latest elections. He remains very much an outsider in politics.