Activists, academics and professionals are now breaching the bastions of the entrenched political classes — the military, big business, the clergy and dynastic families.

It’s a cool evening in Bandung, Indonesia’s third largest city. The crepuscular sky is threatening rain, but in Taman Balai Kota, carnival-like scenes continue to play out. A high school brass band practises marching tunes, skate boarders clatter up and down a wide ledge, senior citizens are out for their evening constitutional. In the midst of the melee, an athletic, bespectacled, man cycles about, occasionally stopping to chat with gaggles of people who seem to have much to discuss with him.

As the call to the Maghrib prayer sounds, the bicyclist waves a quick farewell and rides off to his office, a resplendent colonial building that was originally a coffee warehouse, but today, is the epicentre of political power in Bandung: City Hall or the Balai Kota. The cyclist is none other than Ridwan Kamil, Bandung’s newly elected Mayor, and the Taman Balai Kota is a patch of landscaped green that houses Bandung’s City Hall.

It would be difficult to imagine similar scenes playing out in India, where the metaphorical distance between ordinary people and their political rulers tends to be reinforced physically by sealed-off office spaces and police-escorted VIP cars.

But 41-year-old Ridwan Kamil is part of Indonesia’s new breed of local leaders, men and women who are breaching the bastions of the entrenched political classes: the military, big business, the clergy and dynastic families. And remarkably for Indonesia, doing so untainted by the corruption that is the standard hallmark of politics.

After decentralisation

They owe their rise to the country’s experiment in “big bang” decentralisation in 2001, only a few years after the downfall of military dictator Suharto in 1998. Following the decision to distribute political power centrifugally, the direct election of city mayors was instituted. Local-level leaders also gained control of regional revenues and considerable legislative powers.

Decentralisation has not been without its share of problems, having thrown up its own set of challenges including a wider diffusion of corruption and a penchant for some local governments to ignore central government legislation on sensitive issues like religious tolerance. Yet, it has also offered the opportunity to outsiders like Ridwan Kamil and, most famously, Joko Widodo, the current Jakarta Governor and former mayor of the city of Solo, to make a real difference to the lives of their constituents.

Humble beginnings

Jokowi, as Widodo is universally known, is widely regarded as the likely winner of next year’s presidential election, if he is able to secure his party’s nomination. Remarkably, the 52-year-old has never held national political office. Prior to his election as mayor of the mid-level city of Solo in 2005, Jokowi, the son of a carpenter, had run a furniture business. In the seven years that he ran Solo, Jokowi jolted the city out of its crime-ridden decline and transformed it into a thriving centre for regional arts and tourism.

As Governor of Jakarta, he has instituted universal health coverage and ended a bureaucratic culture of impunity. A heavy-metal fan, Jokowi attends rock music concerts. Eschewing the trappings typically associated with political power, he shops in open-air bazaars. He’s best known for his “blusukan,” where he makes snap visits to local government and tax offices to check up on their workings.

Increasingly, Jokowi has company around the country. His 2012 fellow nominee for the World Mayor Prize was Indonesia’s first directly elected female Mayor, Tri Rismaharini, of Surabaya. Tri has won accolades for her effectiveness in cleaning up and reviving dilapidated urban areas while re-greening the notoriously polluted city. She has been known to get out of her car and direct traffic herself when stuck in a snarl, and she hosts a call-in radio programme where she fields questions on issues ranging from blocked drains to evictions.

Looking into discrimination

Closer to Jakarta, a young political scientist, Bima Arya, has recently won the mayoral seat in Bogor, a satellite city of the Indonesian capital. An academic with a completely clean record, Bima has already promised to redress the religious discrimination that the city’s Christians say they have suffered under the incumbent, Diani Budiarto.

In Bandung, Ridwan Kamil, sits in his office at the end of a long day, looking weary, but nonetheless enthusiastic as he talks about his plans for the city. He’s changed into flip-flops and his bicycle helmet lies on the table next to him; the Mayor cycles from home to work, and back, every day.

Kamil’s predecessor, Dada Rosada, is currently in custody, having been arrested by Indonesia’s anti-corruption watchdog in connection with a bribery case. “I’ve inherited a bureaucracy with terrible morale, and a city with more bad news than good news,” smiles Kamil wanly, referring to the fact that there was no handover ceremony when he took office, with Rosada in jail.

Kamil is perhaps Indonesia’s best-known architect and has been involved in prestige design projects across Asia and the Middle East. His background in city planning and design might make him a logical choice for city mayor, but logic often has little to do with how people vote.

The fact that Indonesian voters are breaking free of vote-bank politics where identity issues and vested interests explain voter choice rather than candidate merit is laudable, specially given the fact that Indonesian democracy is barely 15 years old.

Strong backing

What explains this new wave of activists, academics and professionals who are being voted to power?

Kamil says he owes his victory to strong middle-class civil society backing, which mobilised social media into a wave of support. The new Mayor is a lecturer at the Bandung Institute of Technology, and over the years has been involved with members of the city’s academic, student and activist community in a number of community development projects. He has started urban farming movements and bike-share initiatives, among others.

He does not belong to any political party, although during his campaign he secured the backing of two parties whose original candidates were known as no-hopers. When he entered the electoral fray in March, Kamil was polling at a lowly 6 per cent. A few months later, he won the election with a strong 45 per cent of all votes. He attributes it to campaigns carried out on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. A city of 2.5 million people, Bandung, is ranked sixth on the list of cities with the most active Twitter accounts.

For transparency

Within a month of taking office, Kamil has instituted plans to get beggars off the street by offering them jobs as municipal cleaners. He has persuaded the military to join in on the cleanliness drive with 1,000 troops taking to the streets to help clean up. He wants every neighbourhood in the city to “adopt” a park and every new building to incorporate an urban garden.

Working with Indonesia’s anti-corruption commission, he’s also setting up incentives for whistle-blowers within the administration to report corruption in the city bureaucracy. To improve transparency, all department heads have been ordered to set up Twitter accounts. It will not be easy. Kamil has sprouted grey hair only a month into the job. Yet, he remains hopeful.

In the meantime, all eyes are on Jokowi, and next year’s presidential election. If the Jakarta Governor were to win, it would be a democratic coup for Indonesia, underscoring the success of its experiment with democracy in a relatively short time. But, even if he is denied the ticket this time around, Jokowi and his fellow-local level leaders like Kamil will remain a testament to the fact that the transition from military dictatorship to democracy, even in a large, messy, diverse and relatively poor country like Indonesia, is not only desirable but also workable.

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