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High hopes for honesty in Indonesia

The Indonesian presidential election brings a fresh leader with a record of clean governance, something this young Asian democracy has been struggling for.

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    Indonesian president-elect Joko Widodo gestures after a press conference July 22. The Jakarta governor won the country's presidential election with 53 percent of the vote.
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Few people can find Indonesia on a map. But after Tuesday’s final tally of a July 9 presidential election, the country’s voters have finally put Indonesia on the map. They elected a man, Joko Widodo, who has gone from lowly furniture maker to next leader of the world’s fourth most populous country – all in less than 10 years.

The rapid ascendancy of Mr. Widodo, or “Jokowi”as he is known, cannot be explained solely by his character, actions, or the fact that he will be the first president not from the political elite. Yes, he grew up in a slum on the island of Java, graduated from an elite university, and lived modestly as a craftsman. He still drives a plain car and carries his own luggage even as he has risen from city mayor to governor to president-elect.

But his victory also reveals that Indonesians are eager to embrace someone with a track record of clean, transparent, and efficient governance, which he showed in running the city of Solo and the region around the capital, Jakarta. The country was lifted from dictatorship only in 1998 and had its first direct presidential election only in 2004. In that short period, democracy has unleashed a desire to correct something that even the outgoing president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, admits remains the nation’s main problem: corruption.

Indonesia is the world’s 10th largest economy but among the top 10, it is the most corrupt, based on the rankings of Transparency International. A clean politician stands out like a white spot on batik shirt. The country is also full of idealistic youth. Half the population is under 30. And many of them are plugged into social media. These young netizens helped propel Widodo to win with 53 percent of the vote.

The election has been preceded by steady progress in grass-roots efforts to eradicate graft in government. The election process itself is an example. To protect the integrity of the vote, Widodo’s followers snapped images of ballot tallies at local districts and posted them online to make sure the results were reflected in the national count.

Central to this drive for honest governance is Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission. It has struck a blow for honesty by bringing down many top figures, including the chief justice and 21 governors. Many whistle-blowers have become national celebrities.

The commission has also begun to plant the seeds for fighting corruption in the country’s 73,000 villages. One project aims to help family members of elected leaders avoid getting caught up in corrupt schemes. Another one will set up open wireless Internet in a village and allow people to track the spending and other activities of the local leaders.

Widodo himself brought a new style of clean leadership. He is known to drop in on bureaucrats to check on their work. He appoints workers based on merits, not political connections. When he becomes Indonesia’s leader Oct. 20, he will find that such efforts at a national level will be made easier by a people ready to act on corruption.

“We can no longer just spout theories,” he said during the last presidential debate. “Do not just be bombastic; our shortcoming now is in realization. We already made so many plans. The important thing is to implement [the plans].”

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