With only one exception, the cast of characters who will feature in next year’s election in Indonesia bears an uncanny resemblance to the main actors in India’s political drama

India is not the only large and diverse Asian democracy to be heading to the polls next year. Southeast Asia’s biggest economy and the world’s fourth most populous nation, Indonesia, too, will hold elections in 2014.

Compared to India, Indonesia is a young democracy. It’s been only 15 years since the downfall of military dictator Suharto, who had ruled the country for over three decades, until 1998. But despite its newness, its democracy has parallels to India in its chaotic and exuberant timbre. Noisy, political rallies, outspoken trade unionists, and an assertive press are all part of the political landscape in both nations. They also share a national motto, Unity in Diversity, underscoring the accomplishment of the two states in having woven together their multiplicity of ethnicities, religions and languages into unified national tapestries.

The players

It’s perhaps unsurprising that both countries feature serial coalition governments that must grapple, often unsuccessfully, with similar issues ranging from rampant corruption and inadequate infrastructure, to yawning inequalities and environmental degradation.

A quick survey of the main cast of characters expected to feature in next year’s election drama, reveal archetypes that are familiar to an Indian. The main Opposition, the Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan (PDI-P), is led by Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of independent Indonesia’s founder, Sukarno. The contender who until recently was considered as having the best chances of success, is Gerindra’s Prabowo Subianto, the former head of the Special Forces under Suharto. Prabowo, stands accused of widespread human rights abuses, although his supporters project him as a strong and decisive leader.

Another candidate is the Golkar party’s wealthy, but widely disliked, natural resources and real estate tycoon Aburizal Bakrie. Finally, Islamist parties like the Partai Keadilan Sejahtera are not offering up any presidential candidates, but are nonetheless, important protagonists in Indonesia’s political mix.

Dynastic heirs, authoritarian strongmen, corporate tycoons and religious hardliners: from an Indian perspective this is all par for the course.

But Indonesia holds one ace up its sleeve, without an obvious counterpart in India: 52-year-old political newbie, Joko Widodo — the slightly-built, humble, and wildly popular Governor of Jakarta — who is yet to declare his candidacy, but who every recent opinion poll has shown to be the hands down winner in next year’s electoral showdown, should he stand for president.

Jokowi, the name Mr. Joko goes by, has never held a national-level political position. His CV comprises two stints as elected mayor of Solo, a mid-level city in central Java, and the governorship of the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.

Compared to Obama

The son of a carpenter, he ran a successful furniture business before entering the political fray in 2005. As mayor of Solo, he is credited with transforming a crime-ridden city into a regional centre for arts and culture. Jokowi campaigned against corruption and earned a rare reputation for honesty, going so far as to refuse a government salary for his job as mayor. He enacted several pro-poor policies, including ones that helped rehabilitate the city’s street vendors and mediated several disputes including a succession battle at the local royal palace. In 2009, Jokowi was re-elected Solo’s mayor with an unprecedented 90 per cent vote share.

Last year, he cut short his second term as mayor when his party chief, Megawati, asked him to stand as the PDI-P’s candidate in the Jakarta gubernatorial contest. He chose Basuki Tjahja Purnama, an ethnic-Chinese Christian, as his running mate, a move that underscored his commitment to a pluralistic vision of Indonesia.

Small wonder that Jokowi is often compared to Barack Obama. Like Obama, Jokowi is a charismatic leader who exerts a magnetic pull on the electorate, promising hope and change. He is also the quintessential outsider, untainted by the sins of corruption, collusion and nepotism. His path to electoral success has sidestepped the usual roads to political power: the military, big business, established dynasties and Islamist ideology.

He is instead a product of a decentralisation process in Indonesia that has seen most functions of government devolving to the district level, and direct elections for the posts of district chiefs, mayors and governors instituted. Although this process has come in for flak given the local-level corruption it has spawned, the emergence of politicians like Jokowi is an example of the upside of the decentralisation. When it works, it allows local politicians, with little conventional political backing, but a good track record in office, to rise fast.

Obstacles

As Jakarta Governor, he has been busy. When not undertaking “blusukan” or surprise snap inspections of city officials, he’s usually found visiting local markets and slum areas to take in conditions, at first hand. Now, less than a year into his new job, Jokowi, is the man tipped to become the country’s President. It is however, premature to be applauding his victory. Although PDI-P head, Megawati has lost the last two elections. It is possible she might want to stand once again, denying Jokowi his chance.

Moreover, he does not have much to show for his months in office in Jakarta, yet. His most prized scheme, a universal health card, which roped private hospitals into a publicly funded system that allowed even the poorest city resident access to care, has run into trouble with 16 hospitals threatening to withdraw participation. Jakarta’s traffic remains as snarled as ever, although long-delayed plans for a rail-based mass rapid transportation system have been resuscitated. And the city’s high levels of pollution and rainy season-flooding are unabated.

But, for the time being, Jokowi is getting the benefit of the doubt by an increasingly mature electorate that hankers for clean, performance-oriented leadership, rather than remaining mired in ideological or identity politics.

Even if he is elected next year, it’s far from certain whether he’ll be able to stand up to entrenched interests and other powerful obstacles that a national-level politician must contend with. When Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the current President, was first elected in 2004, he too had been seen as an anti-corruption crusader who would champion the rights of the underdog. It wasn’t long, however, before the realities of ruling reduced SBY, as he is know, to the lame duck he is today accused of being.

Clearly, Jokowi has a long way to go. Nonetheless, the fact that a candidate like him has a real shot at the presidency is a credit to Indonesia. After all, in India, even 66 years of democracy have failed to throw up a comparable candidate despite an electorate increasingly disenchanted with the old guard of politics. If Jokowi is the Indonesia Obama, one might well ask, where is the Indian Jokowi?

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