JAKARTA — At 11 a.m. on Wednesday, July 23, the President of the United States placed a congratulatory phone call to the President-elect of Indonesia. “Apa kabar?” — “how are you?” — President Barack Obama asked Joko Widodo before conveying his congratulations. It was a remarkable moment. For one thing, the President of the United States had greeted his Indonesian counterpart in passable Bahasa Indonesian, which Obama learned growing up in Jakarta, roughly 350 miles west of Joko’s Central Javan hometown of Surakarta, also known as Solo. For another, a decade ago few could have predicted that either man would be occupying their respective offices at all.
The phone call came ten years to the week that America first heard the name Barack Obama, as he delivered the captivating keynote at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that began his meteoric rise from the Illinois State Senate to the White House. At the time, half a world away, Jokowi (as he is affectionately known) was an unknown carpenter and furniture exporter. A year later, as Obama began his first year in the U.S. Senate, Jokowi had risen to become the mayor of Solo, where his promise of “Beauty Without Corruption” and hands-on leadership style brought him national and international attention. By October 2012, with Obama well on his way to a second term as President, Jokowi was being sworn in as Governor of Jakarta, Indonesia’s sprawling 10-million person capital. Last month, after 135 million Indonesians voted in only the third direct election for president in their country’s history, Jokowi capped his rapid ascent by besting the former General Prabowo Subianto by eight million votes–though Prabowo, alleging widespread electoral fraud, has refused to concede.
Like Obama, Jokowi now faces the potential of a transformative presidency–as well as the challenges that come with trying to govern the world’s fourth-most populous country, spread across 13,500 islands, with 250 million citizens hailing from roughly 360 ethnic groups and speaking over 700 languages. After several straight years of 6 percent annual growth, Indonesia’s economy has begun to slow. More than 100 million Indonesians live on $2 a day or less, even as billionaires sunbathe in Bali and Ferraris roam the traffic-choked streets of Jakarta. It is an island nation with infrastructure so poor that landlocked countries like Zimbabwe and Botswana have better access to ports. And on Transparency International’s corruption index, Indonesia–where more than 360 officials have been jailed for graft since 2002 — ranks 114th out of 177 countries.
As Indonesia’s first president to benefit from the country’s experiment decentralizing most political power to the provinces, Jokowi has promised to do for Indonesia what he has done at the local level — curb corruption, lift up the poor, and fight for average citizens. But as the Jakarta Post editorializes, “Jokowi’s grand plans for change might well fall to the wayside, his campaign promises to voters dashed, just as happened to US President Barack Obama.” To avoid that fate, Jokowi should look to Obama’s experience for lessons in what to do — and what not to do.
First and foremost, Jokowi must emphasize that he is his own man. After Obama defeated Hillary Clinton in the primary election, pundits and columnists speculatedhow a Vice President Hillary could, like former Vice President Dick Cheney, “run the White House and the world from the vice president’s residence, calling every shot while serving under a less experienced and younger president.” Instead, Obama chose Senator Joe Biden as his running mate, helping to signal his independence.
Similarly, it was Megawati Sukarnoputri, the chairwoman of the Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (or PDI-P) and a former president herself, who announced Jokowi’s candidacy. Megawati likewise made the victory announcement in her home, with a seemingly subservient Jokowi by her side — leading Indonesians to wonder whether they have handed Megawati, notorious for the epic mismanagement of her own administration from 2001 to 2004, another shot at the presidency. In October, if and when Jokowi is inaugurated as President, he must make clear to Megawati who is boss. Otherwise, he risks being seen as Megawati’s puppet.
Second, as a senior American diplomat says, “Joko will have to grow into the job and not be afraid to surround himself with smart people.” Much was made — rightly — of Obama assembling a “team of rivals,” most prominently appointing Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State even as he opted not to make her Vice President. He likewise kept on Robert Gates, President George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense.
While candidates who run as outsiders are often reluctant to welcome insiders, the kind of systemic change that Jokowi aspires to requires an understanding of the current system. With very little experience on the national stage, Jokowi shouldn’t be afraid to pick seasoned officials for his team. Encouragingly, he has begun doing just that, selecting former Vice President Jusuf Kalla as his running mate, assembling an experienced transition team, and even asking the public to weigh in on potential cabinet picks online — while specifying that “they have to be clean, they have to be competent, they have to have good leadership (skills) and a commitment to serve the people.”
Third, manage expectations. Though Obama repeatedly cautioned his ardent followers that “change is hard,” he also encouraged them to imagine “the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; [that] this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal… when we ended a war and secured our nation.” The simple reality is that no one leader, no matter how charismatic, can fix in a term or even two the problems that have developed over decades. Jokowi would do well to remind his most enthusiastic supporters of that fact.
Fourth, keep your coalition engaged and energized. After building and mobilizing the greatest grassroots organization in the history of American politics, Obama puzzlingly allowed it to languish; during the debate over health care reform, it was his opponents who organized the most successful public response. Like Obama, Jokowi has successfully harnessed the spirit of young people, producing creative “viral” campaign videos and even developing an adaptation of the popular “Angry Birds” game that allowed users to throw virtual tomatoes at corrupt officials.
As Rikard Bagun, the editor of Kompas, tells me, “Joko didn’t control the majority in his local parliaments before and he used the public forums and discussed the issues with the people before attending hearings. By the time the debate occurred in parliament, he told the people which members and parties were uncooperative. Many of them were voted out of office later. He will use these mechanisms again.” With more Jakartans on Twitter than the inhabitants of any other city in the world — and one of the world’s most active Facebook communities, with 70 million users — Jokowi’s continued ability to rally his supporters online and in the streets will be essential to promoting his agenda.
Fifth, embrace the opposition right away. From adopting a health care reform bill previously supported by the Republican Party to championing their emphasis on deficit reduction, Obama has repeatedly — and unsuccessfully — tried to earn opposition support for his policies. Similarly, “Joko’s first six months will be hell for either side if he fails to bring in [the opposition party] Golkar in,” a senior Golkar member tells me. But as Agus Widjojo, a retired general and advisor to the new president, is quick to point out, “Joko is OK to let others make contributions and have successes.” And with many of Jokowi’s opponents likely to jump ship from Prabowo’s coalition, Jokowi may have more opportunities for successful outreach.
For instance, why not respectfully request that Prabowo — who campaigned on the promise to add more investigators to the country’s Corruption Eradication Commission — be put in charge of the anti-corruption efforts that are so central to Jokowi’s appeal? By having Prabowo take credit for cleaning up Indonesian politics, Jokowi would ensure that corrupt and entrenched insiders won’t be able to go behind his back and rally behind Prabowo while also proving that Jokowi is serious about his call for “one Indonesia.”
Finally, don’t be afraid to embrace a larger role on the world stage, even if the people are reluctant. Given that nearly half of Americans say they want the U.S. to be less active abroad, Obama has been cautious about exercising American power, in conflicts from Syria to Gaza to Ukraine.
But with China flexing its considerable muscle in the South China Sea — a resource-rich region through which half the world’s merchant tonnage passes — keeping a low-profile is no longer a viable option. Indonesia must lead. Senior officials “are concerned about China and see the train coming at Indonesia in three or four years,” an ambassador to Indonesia tells me. “China is trying to pick off each country one by one. They use the good and bad cop tactics and are buying off people and their loyalty.” As Endy Bayuni, editor of the Jakarta Post says, “In Joko’s mission it states Indonesia is a Pacific Power and this is the first time anyone has said this.” Now he must act on it.
It was the German sociologist Max Weber who famously called politics “the strong and slow boring of hard boards.” With Indonesia at a pivotal crossroads, it’s time for the former carpenter to get to work.