Widodo has a mandate to rule, but can he reform Indonesia?

Exit polls from today's presidential election point to a comfortable victory for Joko Widodo over his rival, Prabowo Subianto, who refuses to concede. Widodo has promised to shake up a corrupt system. 

Tatan Syuflana/AP
Indonesian presidential candidate Joko Widodo, popularly known as 'Jokowi' gestures after delivering his victory speech in Jakarta, Indonesia, Wednesday, July 9, 2014.

With exit polls pointing to a wider-than-expected margin of victory for Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo in today’s presidential election, his meteoric rise from small-town entrepreneur to Indonesia’s top job seems assured.

Victory over rival candidate Prabowo Subianto, who has refused to concede defeat, would give Mr. Widodo a mandate to enact far-reaching reforms in Southeast Asia’s largest economy, which has grown more slowly in recent months.

While official tallies are not due until July 20 at the earliest, several reliable survey groups have projected Widodo with a 5 percent or higher margin over Mr. Subianto. Radio Republik Indonesia said that with more than 99 percent of votes counted, its tally predicted Widodo had received 53 percent of votes versus 47 percent for Subianto.

Polling company Saiful Mujani Research reported a similar margin of victory for Widodo. Kompas newspaper projected the result as 52 percent for Widodo compared with 48 percent for his opponent.

Subianto, a former military general, claimed that he had a “mandate from the people” based on internal polling. At his party headquarters in Jakarta, he hosted a victory celebration, and said he would wait for the final results.

A decade ago, Widodo was a political unknown. A carpenter and furniture salesman, he was elected in 2005 as major of Surakarta, a city in central Java, the most populous island in Indonesia, an archipelago. He burst onto the national stage with a startling upset win in 2012 to oust the incumbent governor of Jakarta. Both elections were direct votes for the executive position; since 2004, Indonesian presidents have also been selected by direct election.

Widodo, known as Jokowi, is expected to expand government services for the poor, strengthen the country’s corruption fighting agency, and overhaul the police, which is notorious for graft and inefficiency. He is also likely to try to reform the scandal-prone judiciary, after chief justice for the Constitutional Court, Akil Mochtar, was sentenced late last month to life in prison for accepting bribes.

“Jokowi is from the country’s roots,” says Maman, a security guard in Jakarta, speaking after he cast his vote today. “He’s of the people. That’s why I voted for him.”

While the election was expected to be close, the projected margin of victory is roughly double what opinion polls had expected. The result gives Widodo the opportunity to woo over powerful political parties like Golkar, which had backed Subianto’s campaign.

Golkar, the political party of Indonesia’s former dictator Suharto, whose fall in 1998 led to a restoration of democracy, polled second in April’s parliamentary elections, behind Widodo’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). Golkar’s 91 seats would give Widodo’s coalition a majority in parliament. But allying with such a party would also raise doubts over how far Widido could go in uprooting systemic corruption and rent-seeking by politicians and officials.  

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