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In Jokowi, the triumph of the common Indonesian

Publication Date : 30-07-2014


Indonesia’s president-elect Joko Widodo does not give impressive off-the-cuff speeches, nor does he charm his audiences with fancy rhetoric.

But over the past few months, he has managed to win the hearts of millions of Indonesians across the archipelago as he travelled from one end of the country to another, securing 71 million votes that propelled him to victory in the presidential poll earlier this month.

At one stage midway through the campaign, there was a real chance he could lose, given the lukewarm support he received from several members of his own party and what many felt was a disorganised campaign.

Ironically, it was his humble manner and “kampung” (village) style that turned away many middle-class voters who felt he was not confident and convincing enough to lead a nation of 250 million – the world’s fourth-largest country.

But in the end, it was also these traits of his that made him so popular with the average Indonesian and saw him pull through to win a clear 8.4 million votes more than his rival Prabowo Subianto who led a well-organised, aggressive campaign.

Joko’s qualities are not those that politicians in Indonesia have had to rely on to become popular.

For some, Joko is barely a politician by any measure, given his common-man image, as a former furniture seller, reinforced by the way he dresses simply.

Yet the kind of energy he exerts is greater than that of any other politician in these times, whether he is among a crowd at a market or mosque, or on stage addressing supporters.

How does he generate such sympathy and support?

Key to this is the fact that Joko, commonly known as Jokowi, has the gift of empathy.

He is the only Indonesian politician in years to connect with people in a political culture more accustomed to top-down leadership.

His is not a strategy that is sophisticated, but it has proven most effective – and others find it hard to match him on this front.

On the campaign trail across the country, whether in cities or villages, it is often his simple jokes that crack up the audience.

Even when he is visibly irritated, he manages to tell jokes that express frustration, yet that also show up a humorous and lovable side to him.

A key theme on his visits was rebutting smears targeted at him, including that he is the son of a Singaporean, that he would cut the allowances teachers get, and that he would scrap a decades-old rice-for-the-poor programme.

Throughout, he tells his crowds that he has been bullied and underestimated.

With a wide grin, he then adds, as everyone laughs: “They think I’m skinny and I don’t have guts. They should know me better.”

Those supportive of his rival admit that Joko’s common-man image and touch are a main source of his strength.

Contractor Harry Sunaryo, 45, a politician and core supporter of Prabowo, argues: “Jokowi’s strongest asset is not his personal character, not his brain, but his commoner’s face. It is worth millions of votes.”

But it is also this commoner feel to him, his “kampung” jokes, that turned many middle-class voters away from him.

Among them is Prima Allanda, who wrote on popular blog forum Kompasiana, run by Indonesia’s biggest newspaper Kompas, that Joko’s jokes are of low quality and that she is worried this might reflect his day-to-day running of government.
She cites Joko’s remarks that he is just a simple man who is skinny and who eats sweetened green bean soup and boiled bananas for breakfast.

Joko is also at home with laughing at himself. In Papua province, at the start of the presidential election campaign, even as he appealed to supporters to watch out for vote-rigging, he quipped: “I have not slept - in the morning, noon, evening. When I’m done here, I’ll fly to West Java right away. When can I find time to sleep?”

He then added as the crowd burst into laughter: “My weight is a mere 54kg, if I lose weight, it would just be a fifth of a kilo.”

Such jokes may not work for urban voters, but they touch those in the poorer villages across Indonesia who have at best two meals a day.

Being skinny and not indulging in food is a strong display of empathy for voters in many parts of Indonesia, where several districts have been hit by severe drought or bad weather in recent years.

Joko also knows hardship, having seen his family evicted from their river bank home and resettled several times as a young boy. But having built a successful furniture business, he also knows what makes things work.

Perhaps the campaign tagline of Joko and his running mate Jusuf Kalla, or JK, sums it best: “Jokowi-JK adalah kita”, or “Jokowi-JK are us”.

His team also knows that this - the people’s identification with him and his deputy - is something Joko will have to bank on more now if he is to win public support for what might be very tough policy decisions he will have to make as president.


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