Mr Joko Widodo has inspired many with his down-to-earth style and clean reputation. Photo: AP
Indonesian voters and foreign investors alike are abuzz about the potential of presidential frontrunner Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, to transform South-east Asia’s biggest economy.
With growth slowing, inequality widening and the health, education and transport systems in disarray, the country is in dire need of fresh leadership. Yet on closer inspection, the pencil-slim governor of Jakarta’s rapid rise from obscurity — and the great hopes invested in him — may say as much about the leadership vacuum in the world’s third-biggest democracy as it does about his abilities.
Neither former generals Prabowo Subianto and Wiranto, who have faced allegations of human rights abuses, nor tycoon Aburizal Bakrie, whose family business has clashed bitterly with financier Nat Rothschild, have connected with the young electorate.
“Jokowi is so popular because he is standing next to recycled candidates who have run and lost many times before,” says Anies Baswedan, a prominent education campaigner.
With his down-to-earth style and clean reputation, Mr Widodo has inspired many. He rose from furniture factory owner to mayor in his hometown of Solo, central Java, before winning the Jakarta seat in 2012.
Voters like him because he looks and sounds like an “ordinary Joe”, says one rival, who calls him “Indonesia’s George W Bush or Ronald Reagan”. Polls predict he will win July’s presidential vote with room to spare.
But after his party fared worse than expected in last week’s legislative elections, the man who has cast himself as Mr Clean faces a new challenge: Wading into the world of coalition-building, Indonesian-style.
The Indonesia Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P), of which he is the candidate, came first in last week’s elections but did not do as well as predicted — thanks to an uninspiring campaign.
With less than three months to go until his own contest, the 52-year-old will have to cut deals with the motley cast of tycoons, ex-generals and would-be Islamists who make up the same elite from which he sets himself apart if he is to fulfil his ambitions. And he will have to do all that without besmirching his popular image.
So far, the going has not been easy. After last week’s result he tried to regain the initiative over the weekend, embarking on what media termed a “political safari”, visiting the heads of rival parties to seek their support.
He managed to secure the backing of Surya Paloh, a media mogul whose new NasDem party won 7 per cent last week and whose newspapers and TV station have much influence. But, haltingly and unconvincingly, Mr Widodo said he had no interest in “transactional negotiations” or “dividing up seats” in any Cabinet.
Many investors see Mr Widodo in the same light as prime ministerial favourite Narendra Modi in India: A no-nonsense outsider who can shake up a lacklustre centre and kick-start stalled reform of subsidies and red tape.
Yet whereas Mr Modi is a bombastic speaker and astute operator who is rising to the challenge of national electioneering, the more reserved Mr Widodo seems to have frozen in the glare of public expectations since he was named as the PDI-P candidate last month.
The reason for his popularity — his distance from the tired, aloof elite — could not be sustained when his nomination was reliant on the whim of a party chief, former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, who is the epitome of that grouping.
And it was always going to be that much harder once Mr Widodo was forced to stoop to the pork-barrel politics of Indonesia’s legislature.
Even as he gets his hands dirty, many voters still believe Mr Widodo is by far the “best of the worst” options available. “He has gone from god to human,” says one friend of the Jakarta governor. “But that may not be a bad thing if he can better learn how to negotiate Indonesia’s elite politics.”
Ben Bland is Indonesia correspondent for The Financial Times