Indonesia elections: Where did Widodo's 30-point lead go?

Despite a commanding early lead, Joko Widodo now just edges his opponent, a former military general, a week before Indonesians vote for their second directly-elected president.

Dwi Oblo/Reuters
Indonesian presidential candidate Joko Widodo (C) is greeted by supporters as he arrives at a campaign rally in Surakarta, also known as Solo, Central Java June 14, 2014. Indonesia holds a presidential election on July 9, with a new administration set to take office in October. Current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has served the maximum two terms.

With stunning speed, the presidential race expected to be a shoo-in for the popular Jakarta Mayor Joko Widodo has turned into anything but.

Polls, which just a few months ago had Mr. Widodo up by as much as 30 points, now indicate a close race with rival Prawbowo Subianto, a former general who is linked to human rights abuses in the late 1990s at the end of longtime strongman Suharto's regime.

Worries about whether Widodo, with his soft-spoken demeanor, can translate local success into national priorities have eroded his lead over Mr. Subianto, who is also the former son-in-law of Suharto.

Huge lead slips

Widodo’s once double-digit lead over Subianto has evaporated, according to some polls, in part because he’s been vague about which local government reforms and benefits he would introduce nationally. He was slow to act on a smear campaign suggesting he was a closet Christian, a scandal in a country that is 88 percent Muslim. He can seem wooden and unassuming.

His rival, Subianto, by contrast, is a natural in front of the camera. He rode horse back in March at Galora Bung Stadium in Jakarta to accept the nomination of the party he founded, the Great Indonesia Movement Party.

On Sunday, when Subianto addressed tens of thousands at the same stadium full of supporters with his running mate, his supporters explained why they will vote for the former three star general and descendant of Javanese aristocracy.

“He is high class,” says Ayit, a man who, like many here, only uses one name. “He can lead and he can’t be corrupted.”

Widodo, by contrast, has less of the bombast of his rival.

“He can be in front of a hotel ball room of hundreds of people and only speak for five minutes,” says David Wijaya, a businessman who helped Widodo set up a furniture makers’ association in their hometown of Surakarta.

That’s prompted worries that he’s a pushover, and that because he’s not a member of the elite, he is more apt to take orders from members of it, such as from Megawati Sukarnoputri, chairwoman of Widodo's Indonesian Democratic Party.

Mr. Wijaya says that Widodo’s track record relieves him of the need for showy speeches. “Its the quality of the words,” Wijaya says, “not the quantity that counts.”

Local roots

To Wijaya and others in Widodo's Central Java hometown, the lessons he learned here as a carpenter and former mayor are skills that set him up for success at the national level.

For instance, Pasar Notoharjo market, on the outskirts of the town, looks like any other local home-goods bazaar – an avalanche of bicycle parts, bathroom fittings, and electronics rammed into 2,000 stalls linked by covered alleyways.

To residents, it represents an insight into how Mr. Widodo may govern should he win the election.

In Pasar Notoharjo, Widodo weighed in personally to revive the moribund effort to move the street stalls that were clogging traffic and encroaching on public parks. He met more than 50 times with vendors and officials who wanted the stalls moved until a deal was struck.

It’s this consultative approach that Widodo says he’ll bring to the State Palace, with the aim of boosting services and reforming the country’s bureaucracy.

“I remember very well during his first year as mayor, he kept up with the work of the bureaucracy and switched his style from businessman to mayor in no time,” says F.X. Hadi Rudyatmo, Widodo’s successor as mayor of Surakarta, and former deputy, speaking from his heavily trafficked office, decorated in traditional Javanese carvings and framed photos of himself and his former boss.

Widodo’s reputation for making unannounced visits, known here as blusukan, to government offices got its start in Surakarta, and he relied less on delegates to attend meetings and made himself more available to the public, Mr. Rudyatmo says.

From carpentry to politics

Before his candidacy for mayor there was little to suggest Widodo would enter politics. Born to a carpenter father, he studied forestry at Gadja Mada University in Yogyakarta. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified the location of the university.]

But his leadership as a local businessman attracted followers. With local business conditions deteriorating amid rising crime and corruption, colleagues encouraged Widodo, who had set up an efficient furniture makers’ association for the city in 2002, to run for mayor.

Wijaya recalls a night in July 2005 when Widodo invited 20 or so friends for dinner at the local Bima Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlour, a modest eatery on busy street corner that stands at the end of a night market district Widodo would go on to set up.

“We asked him ‘what do you want? If you want to be powerful or rich don’t be mayor unless you want to be corrupt,’” Wijaya says. “When he said ‘I want to serve the people and raise quality of life’ we told him to run and we would back him.”

Widodo’s supporters point to a slew of popular achievements since then. Widodo introduced universal health care for residents of Surakata and Jakarta who didn’t already have coverage. He kick-started billions in public works, including for rapid transit systems in traffic-clogged Jakarta. And he’s moved 14,000 squatters off flood plains in Jakarta, where the rainy season can bring the capital to a stand still.

Critics say he is too populist and lacks the experience necessary to guide Indonesia's economy, which last year fell below 6 percent for the first time since 2009.

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