IT’S Friday afternoon in Jakarta, and Indonesia’s president is getting on his hobby horse. Mounting a gaudily painted cut-out handed to him by a solemn aide, Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, leads not just children from across the archipelago but also panting cabinet ministers on a merry dance around the grounds of the presidential palace. Some of the girls are wearing the hijab; others sport the pigtails of Japanese idol bands. Javanese boys wear the black velvet peci cap. Shy young Papuans are in grass skirts. Jokowi makes the children promise, in a pealing question-and-answer response, to go out and play more. To hammer the point home, he does so himself, taking on all comers at hoop rolling and tag. It is a struggle to imagine other leaders—Xi Jinping, say, or Theresa May—doing the same.
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Jokowi’s common touch brought him to national prominence—plus a reputation for incorruptibility and getting stuff done, first as mayor of the Javanese city of Solo and then as governor of Jakarta, the bursting capital. Where the outgoing president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, or “SBY”, was tall and orotund, Jokowi was approachable and slight. His trademark was the blusukan, impromptu walkabouts in Jakarta’s alleyways during which he would listen to residents’ worries about food prices, transport, flooding and health care.
Deft on social media as well as in person, he suddenly became a hot political asset for his party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which selected him as its candidate for president in 2014. Campaigning as an outsider, Jokowi beat the macho Prabowo Subianto, like SBY a former general under Suharto, the long-serving strongman who fell in 1998. Jokowi, whose father was a furniture-maker, is the first president not from the elites. Megawati Sukarnoputri, the leader of the PDI-P, president from 2001 to 2004 and daughter of Indonesia’s founding father, Sukarno, once referred to President Jokowi as a party “functionary”.
To liberals, Jokowi was the mould-breaking reformer of their dreams. To sceptics, he was a naïf about to be devoured by a devious and corrupt establishment. He has disappointed both camps.
On the economic side, he slashed budget-busting fuel subsidies early on, to the cheers of free-marketeers. But it was a practical decision, to free money for an infrastructure binge, rather than a principled one. As the oil price has risen, fuel subsidies have begun creeping up again. Meanwhile, he has made state infrastructure and energy firms even more dominant. Though he promised the economy would grow by 7% a year, it has only managed around 5%, no faster than under SBY.
A parallel exists with his political approach. He did not view his win as reason to upend a cosy political system in which the spoils are shared and no proper opposition exists. In some respects he underscored it, by offering cabinet posts even to parties that opposed his candidacy. And even though he has talked about a reconciliation commission to examine past human-rights abuses, his minister for security, Wiranto, is emblematic of them. He was army chief at the time of Indonesia’s withdrawal from Timor-Leste in 1999, when thousands of Timorese were killed by army-linked groups.
Yet far from draining his authority, sharing power with the establishment may have reinforced it, by blunting opposition. An ally says political considerations govern his choice for half the cabinet’s 34 seats. But that leaves some of the most crucial ones, starting with the finance ministry, in the hands of true reformers, or at least competents. Somewhere behind Jokowi’s soft edges lies an iron core. Less than a year before the next presidential election, he bats away Banyan’s political questions—including whom he will choose as a running-mate—with twinkling Javanese inscrutability. Politics, he implies, is a necessary pursuit. But it is one divorced from the economy, which is his proper domain.
On that front, his administration is now doing more than it gets credit for. His finance minister, Sri Mulyani Indrawati, is overhauling a tax system that collects a mere tenth of GDP in revenue. Obstacles to doing business are being removed, and foreign investment is growing. And the infrastructure that Jokowi long promised—toll roads, new airports and power plants, all meant to knit the archipelago together—is being rolled out, with investment at near-record levels. Jokowi is in a hurry—hence an alarming reliance on state-owned firms, which can be got to start to work on a new project even before a contract is drawn up. Meanwhile Jokowi keeps ministers on their toes with blusukan to construction sites to ask why things aren’t going faster.
He is most proud of the scheme he initiated to give 92m Indonesians access to cheap health care, along with one that provides 19m needy schoolchildren with money for books, bags and shoes, and another that gives 10m of the country’s poorest families direct income support. Increasing their “purchasing power”, he says, is good for everyone.
This economic medicine may possibly inoculate him against rising religiosity. In late 2016 Islamists demonstrated in huge numbers against his former deputy in Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian ethnic-Chinese known as Ahok, who was unfairly accused and later convicted of blasphemy. The protests posed a threat for Jokowi, who is Muslim but secular in outlook.
Since that crisis, he has assiduously courted—indeed co-opted—the devout, which has left some of his secular fans unhappy. In the palace grounds, gardeners have wrapped the statues of naked women, of which Sukarno was fond, with bundles of tall reeds. Pointedly, however, the first lady, Iriana, larked about before the television cameras with her head uncovered. The lesson of the Ahok saga, says Jokowi, is tolerance and moderation. The months before the next election will make clear how many Indonesians take issue with the proposition.