The Jokowi phenomenon

In Jakarta, Ross Tapsell profiles the city governor who could be the next president of Indonesia

16 January 2014



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“The people’s darling, not the media’s darling”: Jakarta’s governor, Joko Widodo.
Bay Ismoyo/ AFP Photo

IN THE grand, white, pillared building facing Indonesia’s National Monument in Jakarta is the office of Indonesia’s most talked-about figure, city governor Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi. Although he has yet to nominate as a candidate for the Indonesian presidency, Jokowi is leading in all the major polls, some of which see him attracting as much as 45 per cent of the vote, with his nearest rival at around 12 per cent. Just last week, the Indonesian-based magazine Globe Asia named him Man of the Year. “Jakarta’s governor has redefined politics with his down to earth, get-your-hands-dirty style,” the magazine said. “The next stage – the presidency.”

On the afternoon I arrive to interview Jokowi, three mothers with babies born with dangerously oversized heads (a condition known as hydrocephalus) are waiting on the front porch, a space frequented by members of Jakarta’s large population of urban poor. An assistant from the governor’s office listens to their story, registers them and gives them some money. But they don’t leave. By four o’clock the crowd has grown and journalists are beginning to position themselves for a brief interview opportunity. Jokowi appears through the large doors, dressed in a crisp white shirt and black pants. Indonesians often comment that he looks like a “common person,” and he was once depicted by Tempo, Indonesia’s highest-selling magazine, as a becak (pedicab) driver. But today, perhaps because of the grandeur of the surroundings and the way the crowd reacts, he seems somewhat regal.

Having politely answered questions from the journalists, Jokowi moves closer to the car. The mothers approach, intent on telling their story. He listens, interrupting only to say “go on” a few times. “Why then do you want to talk with me if you have already received money from us?” he asks once they’ve finished. “We wanted to see you in person,” says one of the mothers, “and see if you are as handsome as you are on TV.” Everyone laughs, but clearly these mothers haven’t just come for the money. They have embraced the Jokowi phenomenon.

JOKO Widodo, a little-known furniture retailer, became mayor of the central Javanese city of Solo in 2005. He won again, in a landslide, in 2010, only to resign in 2012 to run for governor of Indonesia’s capital. He came to Jakarta with a reputation for incorruptibility, and had recently been ranked third in the annual World Mayor Prize. Jokowi’s running mate was Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Sumatran-born Christian of Chinese descent, popularly known as Ahok, who had a reputation as a clean straight-shooter who got things done.

While most Indonesian politicians still use television advertisements and posters in their campaigning, the Jokowi–Ahok ticket used campaign tools that were still unusual in Indonesia – including BlackBerry messaging, kooky YouTube videos, and matching t-shirts for the candidates – to promote its brand of “new” politics. The pair won the October 2012 election with 53.8 per cent of the vote. But their distinctive approach, and their momentum, didn’t stop there.

A large part of Jokowi’s success can be attributed to his blusukans, or “unscheduled visits.” He arrives, unannounced, in different parts of Jakarta to talk with local people about the issues affecting them. His skill lies in being interested in the details: where the bus stops, how the rubbish is collected, where the drains are blocked. As he showed the mothers outside city hall, he has a seemingly rare ability for a politician – he listens. Jokowi and Ahok also turn up at government offices, followed closely by television cameras, and have often caught public servants resting on their laurels. In a city crippled by traffic chaos, frequent floods and a debilitating bureaucracy, these visits helped create the hope that the two men would find solutions to some of Jakarta’s biggest problems.

Back in his office after a long day of visits to different parts of the city, surveying flood damage and talking to journalists, Jokowi sits comfortably in his chair. A naturally warm character, he seems relaxed despite his hectic schedule. As we begin our interview, he puts away the notes prepared for him by his staff, and talks off-the-cuff about the importance of the media, and in particular television, in his transformation from Solo mayor to the most popular candidate for president. “I learnt in Solo how to manage the media and to differentiate from other candidates,” he tells me. “We go to the problem locations. We go to the poor people, to the riverbank for example, and this is sexy for the media. If you interview in the office or shoot television footage in the office it is not sexy…” Jokowi has a talent for responding to questions spontaneously, and often jokes with journalists and fans. Before our interview, Indonesian actors starring in a new film had arrived to take photos with him to help promote the film. Many in the media describe his style as the “antithesis” of the way previous Indonesian leaders, including the current president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, behave in public.

Like Jokowi, deputy governor Ahok is a “different” kind of politician, and not only because of his ethnicity and religion. When I arrive at his office to interview him, he immediately invites me to lunch with his staff. All issues are open for discussion, and during the hour-long meal it’s rare for more than twenty seconds to go by without Ahok contributing in his rapid-fire Indonesian. In contrast to the more softly spoken Jokowi, he has a quick, direct manner. He jokes, he points, he interrupts. It’s led the Indonesian media to describe them as a good-cop, bad-cop combination.

“This is a rebellious generation,” Ahok tells me. “People have seen the same type of politician and they are bored. They want someone different.” And there is little doubt it’s working, not only in the polls, but also on the ground. A monorail and a mass rapid transit network are being built to address the city’s enormous traffic problems. More public buses are on the roads. Plans have been developed to restore Jakarta’s historic Old Town, rundown for decades. Rivers are being widened and reservoirs developed to prepare for the imminent flood season.

One of Jokowi and Ahok’s most successful ventures has been to move street vendors from beside the road to create more traffic lanes in the notorious preman (local thugs) area of Tanah Abang. “Tanah Abang was a symbol of unmanageability,” says Indonesia’s foremost author, Jakarta resident Goenawan Mohamad. “It was chaos. Jokowi was seen as a chaos-crasher.” Jokowi told the Jakarta Post that the move was successful because “there was a process that we went through. We approached them, prepared a concept and organised the strategy. We involved the locals, talked to the street vendors. We aimed to demonstrate the process to the public.” The scheme made headlines all over Indonesia. “Jakarta is a testing ground,” says Goenawan. “If you can get things done here in Jakarta you can get things done nationally.”

Jokowi’s popularity soon extended across Indonesia. In early 2013, when pollsters started to include him among potential candidates for president, they found he was already leading the race by a slim margin. By December, he had reached the low to mid 40s. One recent poll showed that he could run with any candidate as vice-president, no matter how unpopular, and still win. And he hasn’t even nominated yet.

WITH residents of the other Indonesian islands often complaining about Jakarta-centric politics and pushing for greater decentralisation, how has the governor of the capital gathered so much support? One way to approach this question is to examine the role of Indonesia’s media. Jokowi’s blusukans are not only about the people he meets in person: they have become major media events, making for great television in particular. People hug him, they smile and cheer, some even cry. “We are 80 to 85 per cent certain that TV can change the mindset of the people, and if TV can give positive information it can change perceptions,” says Jokowi. “If I stay in the office do you think they will cover me?”

According to market research company Roy Morgan Indonesia, over 98 per cent of Indonesians surveyed watch television in any given week. Even before the Jokowi phenomenon, around 70 per cent of stories on national TV news stations were from Jakarta. Indonesians from all around the archipelago were watching this politician with a new style of talking directly with the people. Internal data from twenty-four-hour national news stations MetroTV and TVOne shows that when Jokowi is on the news, the ratings surge, while other political stories, especially corruption stories, cause viewers to switch channels.

When kompas.com reported that senior politician Amien Rais had criticised Jokowi, more than 11,000 readers commented, the highest number for a single story since the site was established in 2008. Politicians naturally became wary of criticising him. Just last week, seven out of the top eight most-read stories on kompas.com had Jokowi in the title (and the eighth featured Ahok). Kompas.com is largely read by urban, middle-class office workers, so clearly Jokowi’s popularity is not only among less well-off voters who might relate to Jokowi’s becak driver image. Chief editors of media companies say that the Indonesian media has never seen a phenomenon like Jokowi before.

As Kompas chief editor Rikard Bagun says, “He is the people’s darling, not the media’s darling. They feel he is close to the people. The media is just amplifying the people’s views.” Outside Jokowi’s home island of Java, stories circulate. In Maluku, 2700 kilometres from Jakarta, I was told by a local that Jokowi is great because he trusts his people and thus “never travels with a bodyguard.” Even further east in Papua, a local told me he would vote for Jokowi because “everywhere he goes, he travels with four Papuan bodyguards.” According to one letter to a daily newspaper, “Jokowi is so accustomed to feeding his people first, he eats only whatever is left over. That’s why he’s so thin.” Another explained that Jokowi was appealing because he is “a commoner, the type riding on ojek, metro mini or angkot, lost in the daily traffic to work.” Ahok agrees, saying, “People want the same as them. They see him as from the same village as them, as a simple man with similar protocols to them.” Above all, Jokowi seems to give people hope that Indonesian politics is changing for the better.

“Because I go out of the office, the media will follow,” says Jokowi, pictured here talking to journalists in Jakarta last October.
Eduardo M.C./ Flickr

What makes the Jokowi phenomenon all the more absorbing is that Indonesia’s presidential candidates usually own national media companies. Golkar candidate Aburizal Bakrie, who owns TVOne and Viva News, has made it clear that his outlets will operate in a similar way to Fox News in the United States. Hary Tanoesoedibjo, whose MNC Group television stations command around 42 per cent of the audience in Indonesia, is vice-presidential candidate for the Hanura Party; the party’s polling has improved since Tanoesoedibjo became involved and his media started to push its interests. Surya Paloh, who owns MetroTV and the newspaper Media Indonesia, is founder and presidential candidate for the Nasional Democrats. Potential Partai Democrat candidate Dahlan Iskan owns Jawa Pos Group, which has over 140 Indonesian-language newspapers nationwide, the largest print media group in the country. Even the current president owns a newspaper, Jurnal Nasional.

Jokowi and Ahok have bucked this trend, achieving tremendous success without playing the game of media ownership or paying journalists for regular coverage, which is also a common feature of local politics in the archipelago. “Since Solo, for nine years I have kept this policy,” Jokowi says. “It has not been difficult. Because I go out of the office, the media will follow.” Media moguls with political ambitions were originally very happy to see the Jokowi phenomenon increase their audience and readership, but now that he is the clear presidential favourite they are toughening up their coverage. Journalists from Bakrie’s and Tanoesoedibyo’s media companies have been told to avoid reporting Jokowi, or to focus on criticising his policies. Surya Paloh’s outlets were issued a similar directive last year, although last month he seemed to have a change of heart – the result of internal pressure from editors or poor ratings, perhaps, or because Surya might be holding out hopes for a coalition with the party of which Jokowi is a member, the Democratic Party of Struggle.

In any case, Indonesians can prepare for a media war in the lead-up to the first round of legislative elections in April. “People sometimes tell me, ‘You are not on TV because you don’t have a newspaper or a TV station,’” says Jokowi, “but the people are smart, they know why. People know, and they will switch channels. For me it’s not a problem if they don’t cover me.” On 16 January a rally was held to pressure the Indonesian Broadcasting Corporation to punish media stations which push their political party interests. Jokowi says he is not interested in owning media – “there is more than enough media in Indonesia” – and believes that media “should be independent,” although he stops short of saying media owners should not be allowed to run for political positions. “It’s okay as long as their companies give accurate information and are independent,” he says. Ahok points to the fact that they have used new media to great effect previously, and can put out content on YouTube. “I don’t care if they slander us. That’s why I put up my own content.”

But if nationwide television news stations are partly responsible for Jokowi’s popularity in an archipelago of thirty-four provinces and 17,000 islands, would a blackout or constant criticism mean a reduction in his popularity? “You have to trust the people,” says Goenawan Mohamad, “Look at the other alternatives. There was a vacuum and Jokowi stepped in. They vote for him because there is a need for a guy like Jokowi in Indonesia.” Try as they might, the old-school elite political candidate–media mogul might never be able to compete with Jokowi’s new brand of politics. Kompas’s Rikard Bagun agrees, “Jokowi is an antithesis to other candidates because he invites the people to discuss issues. There is a collective expectation that we need somebody to change things and they found it in Jokowi. He’s part of our destiny.”

FRIDAY 10 January is the Democratic Party of Struggle’s forty-first anniversary. Jokowi’s media caravan leaves early for South Jakarta, where he attends a ceremony beside the party’s founder, the former Indonesian president (2001–04), Megawati Sukarnoputri. Megawati is the most important person in Indonesian politics at present because it is she who will decide whether Jokowi will be the party’s presidential candidate. To do so, she will have to decide whether to run herself. Despite her clear unpopularity – she has lost in the last two elections to current President Yudhoyono and is currently only polling in the single digits – she still harbours a desire to remain as the party’s presidential candidate. As George Orwell once wrote, no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it.

Jokowi doesn’t speak, and Megawati briefly announces that she will make a decision on the party’s presidential nomination once the legislative elections are completed in April. They leave the stage and enter the party’s headquarters, and the media temporarily relaxes. Suddenly Jokowi returns from the room and heads to his car, his long legs fully stretched at fast walking pace to avoid the crush of people following. Journalists scramble into cars packed with television cameras. “Only Jokowi and God know where we are headed next,” one journalist tells me. If God did happen to show up, I wonder, which of the two would the media caravan follow?

Our car is involved in numerous close shaves trying to keep up with the convoy. Soon we are at Halim Air Field in South Jakarta, where Jokowi is checking on the progress of the former military airport that will soon become commercial. He is continuing his practice of dropping in unexpectedly to check on the development of government projects. After the airport we stop suddenly beside the road, where Jokowi holds an impromptu press conference explaining that the road will need to change from four lanes to six to meet the traffic demands to the airport. Journalists again scramble for positions, and he takes detailed questions on the spot without any notes or assistance from his staff. He is distracted only by a passing angkot (local public transport), from which a group of young girls squeal, “It’s Jokowi!”

Then it is back to the cars, fighting through Jakarta’s traffic, to check on another location, this time in North Jakarta. We’ve visited four locations and it’s not even lunchtime. Jokowi rarely spends more than a few hours each day in his office, though he visits Megawati regularly. Such is the balancing act between trying to be an effective governor of Indonesia’s capital and pleasing the woman who holds the key to his nomination for president. Yet polling shows that even if he switched parties, he would probably still win.

A RUN for president will raise fresh questions about whether the Jokowi phenomenon can continue its push for a more transparent, action-oriented political sphere. Even if he does win, some fear that the diminishing powers of the presidency mean that he would lack the capacity to make significant changes. And, as Barack Obama found, when you run on a campaign of hope you are only ever going to disappoint people.

Jokowi is remaining tight-lipped about his presidential hopes, telling the media to ask Megawati if they want to know about the party’s candidate, and when I ask how he sees his future he only says, “All we can do is keep working hard.” But all that matters for now is whether he will have the opportunity to run for president and, in this relatively new democracy, whether the majority of Indonesians will get the chance to vote for the person they most want in that role. As for how long this media phenomenon will last, only time will tell. In the meantime, Indonesians are embracing an approach that could change the nature of politics in the country, and gives many of them the hope that things can change for the better. •

Ross Tapsell is a lecturer in Asian Studies at the Australian National University. He researches the media in Indonesia and Malaysia.

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