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I was walking through a boisterous rally in Jakarta last month, manoeuvring around brass bands and vendors hired to hand out free street food, when I ran into a man who underscored the depth of the political revolution sweeping Indonesia.

Aceng, a 52-year-old construction worker with a red bandana tied around his neck, had come to support Joko Widodo – who that day was being inaugurated as the Southeast Asian giant's unlikely new President.

After three decades of dictatorship under Suharto, followed by more than a decade of rule by aloof Jakarta elites – including the daughter of Indonesian's first president, Sukarno, who grew up in a palace – citizens such as Aceng largely became disillusioned with Indonesian politics. Patronage superseded the rule of law, rallies like this one never occurred, and even citizens much wealthier than Aceng saw politics as an endless swamp of corruption, with many educated people not voting in general elections out of sheer indifference. Those who flooded the streets were offered cash incentives to do so, or else were out for less idealistic reasons – such as protesting against the participation in politics of Indonesia's Chinese minority, or women.

But Aceng and busloads of his neighbours, who spent hours trucking down from the industrial outskirts of this teeming capital of 10 million, came on their own to support Mr. Widodo. Universally known as Jokowi, Indonesia's new leader grew up in a riverside neighbourhood of shacks in the small Javanese city of Solo and appeals to working-class Indonesians. He started his own business, eventually became Solo's mayor, and then moved up to become the governor of Jakarta – and captivated the nation with his fresh approach.

"We're not being paid to do this," Aceng yelled over the din. He looked at me like I did not believe him. "I'm using my own money," he insisted. "I didn't like Indonesian politics before, but I love Jokowi."

It is clear there has been a revolution in the way many citizens think about politics. After Suharto fell, hopes were high for Indonesia's fledgling democracy. But hope dimmed as politicians looked after themselves and their friends. Jokowi's rise has re-energized Indonesian politics, despite the vast challenges facing Jokowi and the country.

"The enthusiasm reflects the novelty," says Hilman Farid, an organizer who began working for Jokowi during his successful campaign to become governor of Jakarta. "Probably the last time we had a situation like this was 1998 [when people were protesting against Suharto]. But then, they were against a regime. Now, it is an attempt to create a regime."

It is almost enough that people donate their time, but many believe ardently enough to pay out to participate in today's exciting politics. Ifa Hanifah Misbach, a psychology lecturer, spent the past couple of months travelling back and forth from Bandung – where she teaches – to Jakarta as part of Jokowi's transition team, helping on the education portfolio.

"The power of Jokowi is volunteer power," she says. "My husband asks, 'Why are you going to Jakarta with your own money?' … I just felt a moral obligation in my heart."

Supporters are attracted to Jokowi for several reasons: He is not corrupt, and even has his cabinet vetted by the anti-corruption commission (though some appointments were seen as compromises to appease the old elite); he directly seeks support from poor Indonesians, in the slums where they live; and he has a track record of building crucial infrastructure in a country where projects can stall for years. Old guard politicians would never have challenged, say, the Indonesian police force's absurd, long-standing "virginity test" for female recruits, which Human Rights Watch revealed this week. Jokowi might – and obviously should.

Already, Jokowi moved bravely this week to slash the country's wasteful fuel subsidy, which eats up as much as one-fifth of Indonesia's national budget. That will free up cash for ambitious universal health-care plans and improved education.

His rise has reinvogorated Indonesian democracy. And Indonesians seem to agree.