This political biography of the current Indonesian President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, explains why his style is so successful and what his major undertakings as president have been. The stated aim of Jokowi and the New Indonesia by Darmawan Prasodjo with assistance from Tim Hannigan, is to give a full picture of the man and his presidency in English. The book is based on an Indonesian language version, but has been extended to give context to readers not familiar with Indonesia’s past.
There isn’t much criticism of Jokowi here, but you will learn a lot about Indonesia. The author, Prasodjo, was once Jokowi’s deputy chief of staff. Hannigan has published several well-received books on Indonesia. To start, there is a rundown of the major events in Indonesia’s short history as a nation-state, from the first president Sukarno through to the 21st-century reformasi era. This section is well-written, concise and easy to follow. It’s also a version of history acceptable to the Indonesian state as it maintains the conspirators in the attempted coup of 1965 were somehow linked to the Indonesian Communist Party, a claim now disputed by some scholars.
Prasodjo dispels the myth that Jokowi was born in a riverside shack in Surakarta, a city in Central Java. However, he did grow up in a rented house and knew economic precarity as a child. This means as a politician he can relate to the so-called wong cilik—a Javanese term for the little people. When he became the mayor of Surakarta he went to talk face to face with street vendors about moving to another part of the city. This is the first example given of his “blusukan” style (blusukan being Javanese for an impromptu visit). A man of the people, Jokowi has broken the trend of Indonesian politicians being elites.
The chapter about Papua (or Irian Jaya as it is known in Indonesia) is a fascinating insight into this remote region. Jokowi is committed to nation-building in this traditionally neglected eastern edge of the country. The way to do this is through infrastructure-building. However, the costs of doing this in the mountains and deep jungles in Papua are astronomical. Prasodjo writes that the independence movement in Papua was largely created by the colonial Dutch who held on to Papua until the early 1960s, in contrast to the rest of Indonesia which declared independence in 1945 and won the colonial war against the Dutch in 1949.
Like many world leaders, Jokowi has been the target of fake news campaigns. Interestingly, one false story is that he is a secret Chrisitan—a sure way to lose votes in a majority Muslim nation. In both the 2014 and 2019 elections his opponent was Prabowo, a former army general, whose bombastic style contrasts with Jokowi’s low-key charm.
Jokowi, meanwhile, stuck firmly to the belief that the approach that had won him Surakarta and Jakarta would work at national level. He spent much time campaigning at street level, where the response was always enthusiastic.
Because he is not necessarily a figure to excite a large crowd from a stage, in 2019 Jokowi’s campaign team made a hologram of him delivering a speech that could be shown in hundreds of places around Indonesia. It was not possible for his street campaigning in person to reach more than a fraction of the people in this vast country.
Many times, when discussing Jokowi’s health, education and infrastructure initiatives, the author references Jokowi’s humble past and career as a businessman before politics. It is these experiences that have helped build Jokowi’s reputation of being the first Indonesian leader to know what the people want.