One might well despair of democracy in Southeast Asia, judging by the events of recent weeks: crackdowns on protesters in Cambodia, anti-Christian attacks in Malaysia and anti-Muslim riots in Myanmar, an electoral civil war in Thailand. That makes the fate of Joko Widodo important far beyond the confines of Jakarta, the sprawling megacity he currently runs.
Polls show the genial “Jokowi,” as he is universally known, to be the overwhelming favorite in Indonesia’s presidential elections, scheduled for July. Indonesians have grown weary of a revolving cast of national politicians that has hardly varied since the fall of Suharto in 1998. Like Barack Obama in his first run for president, 52-year-old Widodo ― a Deep Purple fan and former furniture manufacturer ― has inspired hope that an outsider might bring change and cut through the corruption and policy drift that have marred Indonesian politics.
It’s true that other political outsiders have posted a poor record recently in Asia. Tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra planted the seeds of Thailand’s current crisis with his profligate policies and arrogant style of leadership. Pakistani cricketer Imran Khan has offered few policy ideas beyond ending U.S. drone attacks. Even Arvind Kejriwal, the anti-corruption campaigner and chief minister of Delhi, who leads the most popular third-party movement in India in years, has so far shown himself far more adept at agitprop than at governing.
What all these countries need now are solutions, not slogans. And that’s where Widodo has set himself apart: by effectively addressing three of the key challenges that will confront whoever wins Indonesia’s elections.
First, he has attacked graft and bureaucratic inefficiency ― the two biggest obstacles to doing business in Indonesia. Jakarta bureaucrats are now appointed on merit, based in part on test scores, rather than the strength of their connections or size of their bribes. Many government activities, including paying taxes and applying for a business permit, have been made more transparent, reducing the scope for rent seeking. Technology has empowered citizens to combat corruption themselves: They can now submit mobile-phone footage to expose officials who demand payoffs or otherwise abuse their authority.
Second, while Jakarta’s traffic remains atrocious, Widodo has also started to improve the city’s underdeveloped infrastructure. Here, his trademark “blusukan,” or field visits ― he turns up unannounced in neighborhoods to quiz residents, cut through red tape and shame local officials ― have proved critical. “When I show up, 70 percent of the problem is solved,” Widodo says without boastfulness. The visits earn him immense goodwill, which he’s used to settle long-standing land disputes and clear squatter settlements. Flood-control measures have improved thereby, and new road and rail projects ― including a multibillion-dollar metro ― are under way.
Lastly, Widodo has started to create a proper social-welfare net. He has introduced free health care for Jakarta’s poorest citizens, and elements of the program are being watched as possible national models. The city has gained valuable experience in alleviating many of the same problems the country faces ― most acutely, a dire shortage of facilities, medicines and staff.
How far that experience will translate remains a question. So far, Widodo has mostly challenged only local officials and power brokers, not the much more entrenched politicians, generals and tycoons he’d joust with as president. His policy views, both economic and foreign, are still vague or unknown.
To even run for president, Widodo needs the nomination of his party leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri, whom many believe harbors hopes of landing the top job herself. But if allowed to run, and if he succeeds at the national level, Widodo has the potential to change many Asians’ view of democracy. Megawati would be foolish not to give him the chance.