Enny Nuraheni/Reuters
Governor Joko Widodo is greeted by residents during his visit to inspect the aftermath of a slum fire area in Jakarta April 9, 2013. In a country where political parties are distinguished not by policies but by personalities, Widodo seems a shoo-in for president - if he decides to run.

Will he run? Indonesia's most popular politician keeps nation guessing

Joko Widodo runs Indonesia's capital, Jakarta, and is heavily favored to win if he stands in July's presidential election. His appeal to ordinary voters may sway the political gatekeepers.

As Joko Widodo’s bus sloshes through flooded streets to enter one of Jakarta’s slums, the city’s governor says he’s in no rush to run for national office. “I don’t think about it,” he says. 

Opinion polls suggest that Mr. Widodo is Indonesia’s most popular politician and – should he stand – a clear frontrunner for July’s presidential election. But the decision isn’t his to make: under Indonesia’s electoral system, only major political parties can put candidates on the slate. No write-ins, no independents allowed.

For Widodo, the gatekeeper is former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who chairs the opposition party to which Widodo belongs. A loser in the past two elections, Ms. Megawati’s willingness to step aside for Jakarta’s charismatic governor could make or break Indonesia’s presidential race, as Widodo freely acknowledges. 

“I am focused on being governor of Jakarta. If you want to know who will be the candidate ask Ibu Megawati,” he says using an Indonesian honorific.

While pundits speculate about Megawati’s thinking, including the possibility of Widodo on the ticket as vice president, the former furniture merchant, is honing his reputation as a can-do politician in Jakarta, a megacity of over 20 million. Elected in 2012, he has focused relentlessly on tackling Jakarta’s poverty, traffic, and livability, a brand of bread-and-butter politics that served him well in his previous job as mayor of Solo, a smaller city in Central Java. 

Last month national daily Kompas published a poll that put Widodo’s approval rating at nearly 44 percent – more than all other likely presidential candidates combined. Prabowo Subianto, a retired Army general, came second with 11 percent. Megawati, who served as president in 2001-04, only got six percent.

Widodo’s popularity is evident when he steps off the bus he uses to visit Jakarta’s many slums. Hundreds of residents surge forward to shake his hand amid chants of “Jokowi,” as he’s affectionately known. His aides take notes of the list of their complaints, ranging from the price of beef to rent hikes in public housing. 

After a stop for midday prayers at a mosque, where a crowd of men in colored sarongs spill out onto the front steps, Widodo climbs into a waiting black SUV and, despite the humidity, he doesn’t turn on the air conditioning. As he hands out notebooks to passing children, nearby workers unload garbage from an open-bed truck. The stench of organic waste lingers in the cloying air.

At a crumbling apartment block beside a fetid, overflowing canal, residents complain that rents are set to double to nearly $50 a month. In a country where roughly 100 million live on $2 or less a day, that’s a steep increase.

Back on the bus, Widodo suggests that the city can pay for improvements such as drainage and better lighting while keeping a lid on rents, but he won’t commit to a final settlement. “I will call the management to my office and we’ll make a deal,” he says.

'Street democracy'

Drawn to the drama, news cameras from 12 local stations shadow Widodo’s every move. He insists that his slum tours are effective in jumpstarting Jakarta’s creaky bureaucracy and bringing it closer to those it’s supposed to serve. 

“This is street democracy. People talking to me on the street, talking on the river bank,” Widodo says. “It is important for democracy. We must consult with the people.”

Since taking office, Widodo has revived two long-moribund commuter transport projects. He plans to introduce electronic road pricing this year to ease traffic congestion. He’s moved thousands of squatters out of riverbank slums to make way for work aimed at alleviating annual floods and introduced health insurance for the poor.

That populism is mixed with a dash of pragmatism. As governor, he sets the city’s minimum wage. In 2012 workers got a 50 percent hike; last year it was only 10 percent, to the dismay of labor unions. 

Last week he inked a $1 billion agreement with Taiwanese electronics giant Hon Hai Precision Industry to build a factory in an industrial suburb of Jakarta after promising a mix of tax breaks and new infrastructure. Hon Hai, also known as Foxconn, is a large contract manufacturer for Apple, Microsoft, and other global brands.  

Widodo’s profile and momentum make him a powerful force in national politics, says Anies Baswedan, the president of Paramadina University in Jakarta. Eventually, he predicts, Megawati will step aside so that Widodo can be the party nominee.   

Mr. Baswedan says the election signals a generational change in Indonesian politics. A new, emerging class of voters is increasingly turning against the crop of aging politicians that rose under the Suharto dictatorship and are seen as corrupt. 

“This election is not about Megawati,” Baswedan says. “This isn’t about what one person wants. This is about the hopes of millions.”

A man of action

Around 30 million first-time voters will go to the polls this year, starting with legislative elections in April. None remember the rule of Suharto or the chaos that followed his ouster in 1998; they don’t share their parents’ craving for stability and security, a craving that helped President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a retired general, to win the last two elections (the maximum under term limits.)

Instead they want improved living standards, an end to Indonesia’s endemic corruption, and better paying jobs. And this is where Jakarta’s top official has an edge. “Widodo is seen as a man of action, an implementer,” says Natalia Soebagjo, executive director at the Center for the Study of Governance at the University of Indonesia.

As Widodo hands out notebooks to ecstatic school children, Aspiiah a young mother of three is adamant that Widodo should run for president. “He comes here and talks to us. The others, like Prabowo, never come here,” explains Aspiiah, who like many here uses only one name. “He is serious about helping. He’s not just talking.”

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