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Is Jokowi the will of history?

This article originally appeared in The Jakarta Post, February 26, 2014

If there is one person in Indonesia that has the strongest emotional bond with this republic and will not risk the country’s future for mere political ambition, that person is probably Megawati Soekarnoputri. It is her father’s legacy that has given her a sense of responsibility to preserve the unity and sustain the progress of this nation.

It was for this reason that she decided to run for the presidency in the past, and it is also for this reason that she will not run again. She will instead endorse Jakarta Governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.

This belief was further reinforced after Megawati appeared in a dialogue on a national television program recently. She gave a clear signal that she knows her time is over. Shedding tears, she said that she only wanted Indonesia to be great. She also recalled vividly her father’s admonition to take very seriously the matters of the state: “If it is the problem facing the country, you have to seriously cogitate, because then [your decision] will have a tremendous impact [on the people of this country].”

It might be true that her Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) will reveal its presidential candidate only after the legislative election in April in order to “protect Jokowi from smear campaigns against him that could intensify once his candidacy is confirmed” (The Jakarta Post, Jan. 20, 2014). Even now, such aspersions have intensified, with many exploiting the current Jakarta flood crisis to discredit him.

Nevertheless, such a move will pose a big risk of having the party unable to meet the presidential threshold — winning 25 percent of the popular vote — in order to advance its candidate without the need to form a coalition. The PDI-P’s share of the vote has steadily declined, from one-third in the first post-Soeharto general election in 1999 to a mere 14 percent in the last 2009 election. In this year’s election, it is predicted that many voters will turn away from the Democratic Party and vote for PDI-P and other parties instead. Without a confirmed presidential candidate who could sway more voters, however, it would be hard for the PDI-P to win a quarter of the popular vote.

If the PDI-P could find a way to fight slurs against Jokowi and proclaim his candidacy before the legislative election, it could easily walk away with 25 percent of the popular vote, if not more. Such a result would allow Jokowi to form a strong government that would not require a lot of political compromises and coalitions, which effectively translates to more freedom in choosing the right people for various ministerial appointments.

The big question now is how the PDI-P can neutralize those criticisms directed at Jokowi.

In that televised dialogue, Megawati said she told Jokowi when she asked him to run for Jakarta’s governorship, “DKI Jakarta is not the same as Solo [Surakarta].” This republic is also not the same as Jakarta. The problems that this country is facing are much more multifaceted.

Some critics have, thus, pointed out that Jokowi is largely unproven as a national politician and his experience of running Jakarta and Surakarta is “no match for the complexity of managing the armed forces and police, or overcoming an obstreperous legislature representing the vast and culturally diverse provinces.” (The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 14, 2014) However, none of the past Indonesian presidents elected to their first term had such experience. Having experience as a past president also does not guarantee one’s future performance, history testifies.

It is also important for a president to make strategic moves by achieving visible quick wins in order to amass enough political capital for a broader reform. Jokowi successfully transformed Surakarta from a crime-ridden city into a regional center for arts and culture, leaving behind visible footprints, from city-wide health insurance to a new city-walk and wide pedestrian walkway (the Post, Nov. 18, 2013).

During his first year in Jakarta, Jokowi focused on flood mitigation, traffic improvement as well as health care and education issues. He dredged canals, rivers and reservoirs; added more buses to the Transjakarta bus system; and launched the health card (KJS) and smart card (KJP). These projects have started to show significant visible improvements for Jakarta. For example, Jakarta’s area affected by flood in 2014 has been significantly reduced to 1,425 hectares, from 2,143 hectares in 2013.

Many critics would love to see Jokowi to finish his term in Jakarta and not to behave like a psyllid (kutu loncat or a bug that symbolizes disloyalty). Unfortunately, there are no better candidates than Jokowi in this year’s presidential election. If the PDI-P fields Jokowi as its presidential candidate, his deputy governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, will legally replace him as Jakarta’s governor.

Jokowi’s election to be this country’s number one will not mean the end of his contribution to Jakarta. Instead, the combination of having Jokowi on the top and Ahok as Jakarta’s governor will provide the necessary synergy — sufficient political capital and support — for Ahok to continue revamping Jakarta and to push for bolder reforms in the capital.

Jokowi is no psyllid either. It took his own party and former vice president Jusuf Kalla to convince him to run for Jakarta’s number one spot, and now, it would probably take more people to convince him to run for the presidency.

For many, Jokowi has become a leader even before he is elected as their president. It’s just a matter of time until he marches from being the will of the people to being the will of history.

The writer, formerly a research assistant at the National University of Singapore, is a graduate student in public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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