Joko Widodo and the power of balance

Joko Widodo and the power of balance

As his second term draws to its close in 2024, it is clear the Indonesian president is seeking new ideas to carry forward his legacy

Apart from the small medal with a red and white ribbon, denoting Indonesia’s national colours, there is little about Joko Widodo’s attire that screams power. From his white shirt with sleeves rolled up, khaki trousers (no belt) and sneakers, to his casual, soft tone with his staff, Jokowi would be an unlikely incumbent at Indonesia’s Istana Merdeka, the presidential palace in the heart of Jakarta, or for that matter in any other trappings for a head of state of a country of 270 million people. His expressions are inscrutable, which springs from his Javanese upbringing, and three ‘Don’ts’ he often quotes, say those who know him: “ Ojo kagetan ojo gumunan, ojo dumeh” translate to: ‘Don’t be shocked (keep calm), don’t be amazed (impressed easily) and don’t be arrogant’.

Today, food security is uppermost on his mind, says Jokowi, as he discusses his new forays into global peacemaking, speaking in an interview at the presidential palace, a large single-storey Dutch colonial house. In June, Jokowi became the first Asian leader to wade into the Russia-Ukraine war: he travelled to Kyiv by train from Germany to meet Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, and then flew to Moscow to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin. In Kyiv he was accompanied by his wife, Iriana, who became only the second presidential spouse, after U.S. first lady Jill Biden, to travel to Ukraine during the war, and the only one to visit sites of bombing and meet with the injured in hospital. While the war has not abated, Jokowi’s visit opened the way for discussions on a lift on the sea blockade of Ukrainian grain, as well as Russian grain and fertilizers.

Jakarta festooned

As his second term as president draws to its close in 2024, it is clear that Jokowi is seeking new ideas to burnish his legacy. Indonesia is preparing to host the G-20 leadership in Bali in mid-November, and Jakarta is festooned with purple flags and billboards heralding the summit. The event is clearly a prestige point for Jokowi, as will be next year’s ASEAN chairmanship and summit in Indonesia; both will help build his global image. For Jokowi, the new concern is the possibility that one or more of the Western leaders will boycott the G-20 event, given that Putin has confirmed he will attend. He says that it’s not so much the balance of power but the power of balance he is seeking; after Germany, Ukraine and Russia in June, he travelled to China and Japan in July.

Those following his political career say that the travel is just an extension of his personal slogan,  blusukan, which literally means ‘to go to the ground to ascertain something’. It was a slogan that catapulted him to the office of mayor of Solo or Surakarta, the town he grew up in, as the son of a carpenter and bamboo salesman. After graduating, he worked at a pulp mill and then, with the help of a loan from a relative, set up a furniture factory in Solo, which shot him to local fame. In 2005, he fought and won an election as mayor in the city he had lived in, in a riverside slum area. In 2012, he was elected governor of Jakarta. Jokowi’s non-traditional, outsider style of politics (along with a slight resemblance to the former U.S. president) also earned him the nickname ‘Obama of the East’, and his non-confrontational manner made him the choice of presidential contender for his party, Partai Demokrasi Indonesia-Perjuangan or PDI-P.

Jokowi’s photo-op meetings are now famous. Most recently, he took Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese on a bicycle ride around the presidential estate in Bogor on Jakarta’s outskirts. He then rode a newly built stretch of a Sumatra highway on a motorbike, flanked by his industries minister and tourism minister also riding bikes. He gives visiting journalists interviews while walking through shanty towns, flying over a new dam project, dancing and singing with local cultural troupes, and even tapping to heavy metal songs.

The president, an avid biker.

The president, an avid biker. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Liberal appeal

Politically however, Jokowi has shown some unease, and even timidity, in the face of trouble. A salutary example was his erstwhile deputy governor and close friend, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also called Ahok, a Christian businessman of Chinese descent. Ahok took over Jokowi’s spot as governor of Jakarta when he became president, and both men worked closely together on plans to decongest the overpopulated Indonesian capital, including bringing in a spanking new metro to the city. However, when Ahok ran into trouble with Islamist political groups on blasphemy charges and was sentenced to two years in prison, Jokowi was seen to be distancing himself. In 2019, Jokowi even picked conservative cleric Ma’ruf Amin, one of the men who testified against Ahok in his trial, as his vice-presidential running mate.

The pitch to Islamist forces was seen as a compromise by a president, who had, in his first term, cashed in on his liberal appeal. Managing Islamic radical groups has always been one of his bigger challenges in a country with a largely peaceable 88% Muslim majority. It is also home to radical extremist and terrorist groups, and the inclusion of Islamist parties in his coalition is a pressure point he has to contend with constantly. “Jokowi’s promise in his first term has been tempered by realism in his second. He was first elected in 2014 on the basis of liberalism, but by 2019 he began to accommodate religious conservatives much more,” says former Indian ambassador, Gurjit Singh, who was Jokowi’s neighbour when the latter was Jakarta governor. “Many of his plans to play a role internationally, on Afghanistan and the Myanmar Rohingya issue, were not realised.”

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (right) cycles with Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese in Bogor Presidential palace during the latter’s visit to the country.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (right) cycles with Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese in Bogor Presidential palace during the latter’s visit to the country. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Ties with India

Plans to build closer ties with India have also slowed after the initial exchange of visits between him and prime minister Narendra Modi for a number of reasons. Plans to develop Indonesia’s Sabang port have not taken off nearly five years later, due to red tape in both capitals. Since 2020, relations have hit a speed bump over Indonesian concerns on growing majoritarianism in India. This was sparked by the arrest of thousands attending the Tablighi Jamaat Ijtema in Delhi, including more than 800 Indonesians during the lockdown in March 2020, and the more recent controversy over the remarks on the Prophet. I ask Jokowi if he raised these concerns with Modi during a recent meeting in Germany on the sidelines of the G-7, where the duo was seen sharing a helicopter ride together; but he is characteristically shielded. Governments must “show by the power of example” that they are inclusive, is all he says, pointing to his own government that includes Christians, Hindus, and women in powerful positions.

“Indonesia has so many different regions, languages (more than 800), ethnicities (more than 700) and mostly, we are able to integrate well. Some religious radical groups exist, but I think that’s probably true not only for Indonesia, but for all countries in the world,” Jokowi tells me, when I ask about the challenges of multiculturalism in a country with such a large Muslim majority, and the contrasts within, primarily with the island of Bali, where 87% of the population (1.7% of all Indonesians) identify as practitioners of ‘Agama Hindu Dharma’ or ‘Balinese Hinduism’. With his penchant for demonstrative symbolism, Jokowi has been known to join Islamist protestors against him, in prayer; at a national assembly session Jokowi, who is Javanese, wore a Buginese costume, while his vice president, who is Buginese dressed in Javanese style. ‘ Bhinneka Tunggal Ika’ (in Sanskrit, ‘unity in diversity’) he tweeted while attending Christmas prayers some years ago, referring to the official Indonesian motto, which has also been his biggest challenge, given the growth of religious radical groups such as the Khilafatul Muslimin, and more extremist Islamist groups responsible for attacks on minorities.

“Most importantly, we need to reduce our egoism,” he tells me in Bahasa, via a translator

When I ask about plans for the future, he shakes his head emphatically to say that he has no interest in pursuing a third term in office, although given his seven-party coalition’s 81% strength in Parliament, he probably could change the constitution to do so. “I will go back to Solo, and spend some time relaxing in my home,” he says, and for just a moment it seems as if the former furniture businessman actually misses his old life. Will history repeat, I ask him, about his son Gibran Rakabuming Raka who is now the Mayor of Solo (Jokowi’s son-in-law is Mayor of Medan). “Only if he can win,” he says, shaking his head when I suggest he is building a political dynasty. “Only if he can convince people he is the best choice… and the people, they aren’t easy to please,” he adds.

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