03/27/2014 08:08 EDT | Updated 05/27/2014 05:59 EDT

Can Jokowi Become the Next Indonesian President?

Indonesia's presidential election, scheduled for July, has recently been jolted into life by the news that the hugely popular Governor of Indonesia's capital city Joko Widodo (well-known as Jokowi) has joined the field. Early in February a well-connected Indonesian in Jakarta told me, with an air of certainty, that Jokowi would be nominated as his party's presidential candidate in next July's elections.

And after many months of uncertainty over whether Jokowi's party leader Megawati Soekarnoputri would choose him, or stand herself, Jokowi's candidacy was confirmed on March 13. The timing was important: any further delay of the announcement would have allowed Gerindra's Prabowo Subianto, who has already been conducting a slick campaign, to make further inroads into Jokowi's lead in the polls.

A poll in February showed Jokowi's popularity had fallen from 36 per cent in October to 31.8 while that of Prabowo had risen to 12.8 from 6.6 per cent. There are other candidates of course, notably Aburizal Bakrie of the well-oiled Golkar party, but the contest is shaping up to be between Jokowi and Prabowo.

There is little doubt Jokowi is hugely popular. Now his candidacy has been confirmed, his Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) will gain ground. It is important for the PDI-P to do well in the election for the legislature next month for its candidate to stand and contest for President in July, and to dominate the legislature afterwards.

Of around 187 million eligible voters in the world's fourth most populous country, 67 million - the young who largely support Jokowi -- will be voting for the first time. In recent elections, as many as 30 percent of eligible voters have not turned out to vote. Yet this time many are anecdotally recorded as saying they will vote if Jokowi was standing.

Jokowi's popularity is not simple populism. The Jakarta Composite index rose 3.2 percent last Friday on his being given the mandate to stand. From his record as Governor of Jakarta, there is belief in his hands-on approach, his commitment to fight corruption and tackle widespread tax evasion, and his plans to build better infrastructure.

Yet it will be a mistake to assume the election will be a walkover for Jokowi. His opponents are formidable political operators, even if they have previously failed in terms of governance. Prabowo, and particularly Aburizal, have enormous financial resources.

Jokowi's plans to move tax collection online, though widely popular, will find resistance from privileged tax evaders. His lack of national (and international) experience will be used against him. There are mutterings among the elite that Jokowi's simplicity and unaffected manner will not represent Indonesia suitably.

Constitutional complications are already being raised. Since Jokowi is not chairman of his party, he will need to go back to Megawati to get support should he become President.

Before that, he has to win. To do that, he must translate wide popular support into electoral success in a country where issues are highly provincially-charged. The decentralization which his own party leader started has taken root. Jokowi needs to somehow rouse a national purpose across 32 provinces, some of which like Aceh, demonstrate the most parochial tendencies.

If Jokowi can't nobody can. But he will still have to work with the various parties, thankfully there will 'only' be 12 contesting this time, to garner their support even after becoming President. The political horse-trading that goes on can frustrate. However, if he obtains a robust mandate, his position will be strong. And, if he can get establishment support -- Jusuf Kalla (the current President's disenchanted first term Vice-President) has been mentioned as a possible running mate -- Indonesia might be set for positive political and structural economic change.

If Jokowi wins and fulfills his promise, he will romp home in 2019 when legislative and presidential elections are held together for the first time in line with the recent constitutional court ruling.

In foreign policy, which has not figured so far in the electoral discourse based almost exclusively on bread and butter issues, the expectation is he will rely on Indonesia's technocrats. Often, however, new leaders coming in with no experience of foreign policy surprise by being active in it, usually linking domestic economic objectives with external relations.

Those who see the electoral focus on internal issues -- Prabowo is playing the strong economic nationalist card -- and a decentralized political environment as indicating an Indonesia that will turn inwards underestimate how globalised the world has become. They also overlook how the enlightened Jokowi might intelligently respond to it.


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