In Ben Bland’s political biography Man of Contradictions: Joko Widodo and the Struggle to Remake Indonesia, the current president of Indonesia starts out as a political outsider but becomes part of the establishment. The unanswered question is: once Jokowi, as he is known, came under more scrutiny, did the less attractive aspects of his leadership style become evident—or was he changed by power? Jokowi’s vision is that the world’s fourth most populous nation will be a developed country and the fourth largest economy by 2045. Bland, wisely, doesn’t make a final judgement on the man who will be in power until 2024.
Since the fall of the dictator General Suharto in 1998, Indonesian politics has not captured much attention. Jokowi changed this with his rags to riches story, but those hoping for his presidency to be a bastion of democracy, free trade and a counterbalance to China in the region have been disappointed. Jokowi, with his personal charm, has created opportunities for foreign investment, however he will not do away with all protectionist policies. In foreign policy he is not interested in abstract geopolitics. Indonesia and China have disputes in the South China Sea, but he is not going to really stand up to China as long as they keep investing.
Jokowi grew up in a riverside shack in Solo, a city in Central Java: an extraordinary place to begin a journey to becoming president. Indonesian politics, as in many if not most other places, have traditionally been controlled by a tight group of elites. Jokowi was a successful furniture maker in Solo before being elected mayor in 2005. It was his personal touch as a leader that caught people’s attention.
‘Even when the road was full of mud, he still came to visit us,’ one housewife told me as she and a friend showed me their new homes, small and basic but solid and accompanied by all-important land ownership certificates.
After his success in Solo, established political players brought Jokowi to Jakarta to run for governor in 2012. In the capital he continued his “blusukan” (Javanese for impromptu visit) style of leadership, turning up all over the city to listen to people’s problems and trying to solve them. In 2014, he won the presidency after being nominated by Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of Indonesia’s first president Sukarno, and former president herself.
His opponent was Prabowo Subianto, a former general accused of human rights abuses during the fall of Suharto. In a bitter campaign, Jokowi was falsely accused of being of Chinese descent and a Christian: a smear campaign something along the lines of the claims that Barack Obama was not born in America. Political Islam, embraced by Prabowo when it suits him, is a powerful force in Indonesia, and there has long been prejudice against the local Chinese minority. After defeating him again in 2019, Jokowi gave Prabowo the position of minister of defence, an action which for some showed Jokowi’s transformation from populist hero to a member of the crony political class. His acquiesce to radical Islamic groups was another example of this change. Jokowi didn’t defend his former ally, the ethnic Chinese and Christian governor of Jakarta, Ahok, against trumped up charges of blasphemy Islamic groups used to get rid of him.
Bland claims the man many hoped would revitalize Indonesian democracy has a distinct authoritarian bent, this has been shown by, amongst other things, his increasing closeness with the military. His initial response to COVID-19 was also a worry.
As COVID-19 began to spread in Indonesia during early 2020, the police announced that they would target not only those spreading misinformation about the novel coronavirus, but also those who had ‘insulted’ the president or other government officials.
Jokowi is an impulsive leader, interested in getting things done, but not keen on taking expert advice or looking at data and detailed plans. True, Jokowi finally got a metro system working in Jakarta, but his idea to construct a new capital in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) is true to his “haphazard” style. Jakarta is at breaking point, the sinking city floods every year and if you halved the traffic on the roads tomorrow the place would still be one big jam. However, the new capital, nicknamed “Jokopolis” in far away Kalimantan, has not been thoroughly planned out and is likely to go way over budget. A simpler solution would be to create a new administrative capital not far from Jakarta.
Bland portrays Jokowi as a natural politician, one who can get things done through personal leadership—but with a population of 270 million Indonesia may need a more coherent strategy to complete his dream of it becoming a developed nation by 2045. Man of Contradictions, while asking more questions than it answers, is a good introduction to the current political situation in Indonesia and how its progress is hamstrung by its past.
Frank Beyer's writing has appeared in the LA Review of Books, Anak Sastra and Headland Journal.