Indonesia bucks strongman trend with Widodo reelection

Hannah Beech and Muktita Suhartono, The New York Times

Posted at May 21 2019 03:00 PM

President Joko Widodo of Indonesia, center in white, is thronged by supporters outside the Badung Market, in Bali, May 18, 2019. Widodo has succeeded in his bid for re-election, according to a full vote count released by the country’s election commission on May 20, in a repudiation of the nationalist and faith politics that have brought strongmen to power across the globe. Bryan Denton, The New York Times

MANDALIKA, Indonesia — The woman threw herself on the road in front of the motorcade, forcing the vehicle with the license plate “Indonesia 1” to slam on the brakes.

“Jokowi, I love you,” she cried, as President Joko Widodo of Indonesia, re-elected with the release of the vote count Tuesday, rolled down his window to clasp hands with the sobbing fan on a rural roadside on the island of Lombok.

Commonly known by the nickname Jokowi, Widodo seems an unlikely figure to command such rock-star reverence. His oratory depends less on grand vision or populist rhetoric and more on statistics about road building or village financing down to the 10th decimal place.

He favors plain white collared shirts and black trousers. He speaks softly.

Yet Widodo’s re-election to a second and final term as president of the world’s fourth most populous nation is a powerful counterweight to the democratic weakening and strongman politics that have recently dominated the global electoral landscape.

“I’m president of all of Indonesia, and democracy protects pluralism,” Widodo told The New York Times in an interview. “My government is about harmony and opposing extremism.”

Just by the numbers, of which Widodo is so fond, Indonesia is a nation of political superlatives. The country has the world’s largest Muslim population but it is also a secular state with sizable religious minorities. It is the planet’s third-biggest democracy, behind India and the United States.

And it is the biggest island nation on Earth, composed of 17,000 islands where more than 300 languages are spoken, according to the president’s count.

“For the continued existence of our country,” Widodo said, “we have to rely on Indonesia’s culture, which is diverse and tolerant.”

Yet the challenges of holding together such a sprawling nation mean that Indonesia often seems to retreat into itself rather than project its weight on the global stage. Widodo, 57, demurred when asked whether Indonesia, which overthrew a dictatorship two decades ago, might serve as a model for Muslim-majority nations ruled by family diktat.

“Islam and democracy are compatible,” Widodo said. “But let others come and see with their own eyes. I cannot tell them.”

Instead, he began listing the finer points of cutting red tape to acquire business permits. Focusing on a lagging infrastructure that has hobbled the nation’s economic growth, he spent nearly 10 minutes talking about the more than 1,100 miles of roads built during his first five-year term.

Then he moved on to the merits of mass transit. The country’s traffic-choked capital, Jakarta, struggled for years to build a subway, its first part opening only recently.

“Transportation maybe is not sexy,” he said. “But if we don’t have good infrastructure, we cannot be a developed country. We are behind in building roads and airports.”

A onetime furniture maker before becoming a mayor, Widodo is the first true commoner to be elected president of Indonesia. He took power in 2014, promising to uphold the rights of minorities and women. In addition to improving Indonesia’s woeful infrastructure, he pledged to combat deep-rooted corruption.

“I’ve been working on public works for 40 years,” said Basuki Hadimuljono, the minister for public works and people’s housing. “This is the first time we’ve had commitment from the president to do all this.”

Widodo’s opponent in last month’s elections, Prabowo Subianto, was the same old-guard opponent he faced in 2014. A former army general who was once married to the daughter of Indonesia’s longtime dictator, Prabowo said he didn’t accept the election results.

Despite his taste for wine and a Christian mother, Prabowo aligned himself with hard-line Muslim forces that have called for the country to jettison its syncretic Islam for a more austere form of the faith as practiced in its Middle Eastern birthplace. He allowed rumors to flourish that Widodo, who fasts twice a week in a pious Muslim tradition, was a closet Christian.

Widodo has defended Indonesian Muslim traditions, which incorporate elements from other faiths, including local nature worship. As president, he banned a hard-line group intent on creating a global Islamic caliphate to replace democratic governance.

“Our Islam is modern, moderate and different from others,” he said.

But as Indonesia has hewed to a global trend of growing Islamic conservatism, Widodo picked as his running mate this election a Muslim cleric who has spoken out against yoga and gay rights.

When his former political protégé, an ethnic Chinese Christian, was imprisoned for blasphemy in 2017, a charge that human rights activists saw as politically motivated, Widodo declined to defend him.

Asked about his failure to speak up for his old political ally, Widodo said after a long pause, “Sometimes in politics, it’s difficult to say,” adding, “You must decide the priorities for the country.”

Widodo’s critics say his silence betrayed the religious minorities who overwhelmingly voted for him in both presidential elections.

“I thought that Jokowi missed the golden moment to strengthen the human rights regime that has been enshrined in the constitution and other human rights laws,” said Nursyahbani Katjasungkana, a human rights lawyer and women’s rights advocate.

Widodo’s supporters say that his second term will allow him to pursue a reformist agenda without having to worry about re-election because of term limits.

And in a country where political elites are often dogged by whispers of lavish corruption, Widodo’s family is ascetic. One of his sons is a blogger who dabbles in a business of treats made of banana, while the other owns a pancake chain. His daughter failed to pass the civil service exam. Widodo has only one wife.

He enjoys heavy metal and once traveled to Singapore for a Judas Priest concert.

In a Muslim-dominated society, Widodo has called for greater female participation in the workforce. Eight of his 34 ministers are women, and they handle important portfolios like the foreign and finance ministries.

“It’s very important for our economy to empower women,” Widodo said.

Walking through a food market on the tourist island of Bali last weekend, Widodo noted that more than 90 percent of the stall owners were female. He talked up microfinancing initiatives for women.

The market was spotless. Hillocks of guavas, avocados and hairy rambutan fruit were perfectly placed. A few years ago, the space was filthy, slick with fish guts and rotting produce underfoot, stall owners said.

This year, Bali banned the use of single-use plastics, like plastic bags and straws, to tackle the tsunami of waste washing up on Indonesia’s once pristine beaches. The country is the second-largest producer of plastic waste in the world.

Widodo bought a pair of papayas from Made Warti, a 68-year-old fruit seller. Delighted that the president had stopped at her stand, she tried to stuff the fruit in a plastic bag before a member the presidential entourage instructed her to use a cloth tote.

She shrugged when asked about government initiatives for female entrepreneurs like herself; she had never heard of such a thing.

In a country as scattered and corrupt as Indonesia, much can get lost between the highest levels of government policy and a shopkeeper trying to make a living.

The crowds jostled Widodo as he caressed fruit and posed for a seemingly endless procession of selfies. The day before, he had spent hours in a mall and other venues doing the same. Smile, smile, smile.

Sometimes, his admirers were so nervous that their sweaty fingers could not activate the buttons to trigger their phone cameras. Widodo was happy to take over the controls.

“I’m your president so I work for you,” he joked as one fan handed over his cellphone. “That’s my job.”


2019 New York Times News Service