By Erich Follath
November 07, 2013
Joko Widodo is a strange character, a superstar in his country and a figure of growing importance in Asian politics. He is also a mixture of many things that don't ordinarily mix.
Sometimes he behaves like the legendary Kalif Harun al-Rashid, who used to sneak out of his palace in Baghdad at night to mingle, in disguise, with ordinary people and learn what they were thinking. Sometimes he emulates Nelson Mandela, who has charmed people with his optimism and eloquence throughout his life. And sometimes he comes across as a Mick Jagger type, charismatic and assertive, but perhaps a little too self-absorbed.
For his fellow Indonesians, this is apparently an irresistible blend of character traits. Widodo, 52, widely known as "Jokowi," is a pop star and an inspirational tribune of the people. He is the governor of the regional district of Jakarta, a megalopolis of about 23 million people on a strip of land along the coast, which is constantly threatened by flooding. In fact, scientists believe that most of Jakarta will be underwater by 2050.
Greater Jakarta is one of the most chaotic collections of people in the world, a seemingly ungovernable Moloch. But according to opinion polls, Governor Jokowi is doing such a good job in Jakarta that Indonesians say they would elect him president in next year's national elections. This would also make him one of the leaders of the G-20 group of 20 major economies.
Indonesia, an enormous nation consisting of more than 17,500 islands, stretches from Banda Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra to Borneo, Java, Bali, the Maluku Islands and New Guinea. It encompasses more than 5,000 kilometers (3,107 miles) from west to east, or about the distance from Lisbon to well past Moscow. It is a country with vast, virtually uninhabited regions and some of the world's most crowded places. It also holds volcanoes and tropical rainforests, the home of giant, 60-meter (200-foot) trees, along with mangroves and coral reefs, orangutans and Komodo dragons.
Indonesia's manmade wonders are as impressive as its natural features. Magnificent Buddhist temples like Borobudur and impressive Hindu sites like Tanah Lot are UNESCO World Heritage sites. And Jakarta, Surabaya and Medan boast some of the world's largest and most beautiful mosques.
World's Largest Muslim Population
Despite the current economic setbacks, including last week's strikes, Indonesia is still considered one of the up-and-coming Tiger Cub economies. It has sufficient oil and natural gas reserves, is the world's largest exporter of palm oil and has good relations with Washington, Beijing and Berlin. Germany's Federal Security Council has approved the export of Leopard 2 tanks to Jakarta, notwithstanding the Indonesian military's brutal treatment of Papuan rebels. After her visit this summer, German Chancellor Angela Merkel enthusiastically referred to Indonesia as a dynamic and future-oriented economy, with the world's fourth-largest population after China, India and the United States.
Another notable feature that has attracted the world's attention is the fact that close to 90 percent of Indonesia's 250 million people are Muslim, making it by far the world's largest Muslim population -- greater than Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf countries combined.
There have been periodic attacks by Islamist fanatics, with the worst claiming 202 lives on the island of Bali in 2002. But terrorism is seen as the exception in Indonesia, while religious tolerance is the norm. For many people, Southeast Asian Islam serves as proof that an open-minded, gentler version of the religion exists. The country is a possible role model for others, which could learn a lot from Indonesia's "spirit of tolerance," as US President Barack Obama, who spent a portion of his childhood in Jakarta, put it during his 2010 visit.
Is Indonesia truly an exemplary country, a role model for the radically changing societies of the Arab Spring? Can this country truly claim to be proof that the Koran, with its strict rules, is compatible with parliamentary democracy and its freedoms?
Those who believe that Islam and pluralism do not have to be contradictions are pinning their hopes on Governor Jokowi. He describes himself as a devout Muslim, and yet his religious affiliation does not figure prominently in his rhetoric or his actions. He has also chosen a lieutenant governor, 47-year-old Basuki "Ahok" Purnama, who belongs to two minorities. He is neither Javanese nor a member of other local ethnic groups, but Chinese. He is also a Christian.
"Why should that bother me?" Jokowi asks.
It is shortly after 7 a.m., and the governor is making one of his frequent, unannounced visits to one of southern Jakarta's many slums, which are characterized by derelict huts, filthy canals and poor air quality. Wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball cap, he is accompanied only by an assistant, instead of arriving with an entourage and a police escort.
Jokowi has targeted several of his city administration's district offices. The officials there are supposed to be available, starting at 9 a.m., to issue birth certificates, passports and drivers' licenses. But inefficiency has become the norm over the years, and hardly any of the offices he visits opens its doors on time. The governor pulls out his ballpoint pen and takes notes. In one office, an employee came to work 35 minutes late, while another arrived 90 minutes after the office was supposed to open. This will not be without consequences. Jokowi will later send out warning letters, and the worst of the offenders will be threatened with dismissal.
He listens to citizens as they vocally complain about the capriciousness of government officials and the bribes they are constantly expected to pay. He makes casual but sympathetic remarks here and there, which tend to reinforce the residents' anger instead of channeling it. But most of all he listens, and before long he is one of them. Or at least he makes the impression that he is just another ordinary person, everyone's neighbour.
Then Jokowi departs just as quietly as he arrived, leaving behind astonished slum residents who will likely repeat the story of his spontaneous visit frequently in the future. They are not accustomed to seeing such an important politician turn up. On this morning, they experience the governor's fairy tale-like qualities, his Harun al-Rashid side.
Commitment to Transparency
On another occasion, the governor attends a town meeting in eastern Jakarta, this time arriving in an official car and with an entourage. The traffic is horrendous. Just past the urban canyons of downtown Jakarta, everything converges to form one of the city's frequent mega-traffic jams that are sometimes 25 kilometers long. Local residents refer to them as "Big Durian," a reference to the large, foul-smelling tropical fruit that few find appealing. People have settled in the area for more than 2,000 years. The country's former Dutch colonial rulers are responsible for the growth of an administrative center, Batavia, on a flood-prone bay, a city that became Indonesia's capital after independence in 1949.
Jokowi grew up in a middle-class family. His father, a carpenter, had to save every cent to send his children to school. Jokowi studied forestry and later became a furniture maker. Friends suggested that he run for mayor of his hometown of Surakarta, a city of about half a million people. "They were apparently impressed with my commitment to transparency and against cronyism," he says proudly. He won the election with more than 90 percent of the vote. Jokowi also attracted international attention when he was named the world's third most effective mayor by an international think tank.
Then, in October 2012, he took office in the capital, where a handful of prominent families and high-ranking military officers have traditionally been in charge, like almost everywhere else in Indonesia. Jokowi scored a surprise coup with his anti-establishment campaign, and he has been riding a wave of public approval ever since.
Few people in Jakarta point out that the popular governor has yet to make good on many of his campaign promises, from a planned expansion of public transportation to flood mitigation measures. With each appearance, Jokowi manages to convey the hope that something could change. "Someone has to come to grips with the problems," he tells citizens as they crowd against the barriers and desperately try to touch their idol. "I will not disappoint you!" By this point, Jokowi has switched to Messiah mode, shaking hands, kissing babies and sitting down on the grass for several minutes to listen to a group of people out of work. He unites instead of polarizing. He stands for a reform program, but most of all he stands for himself and the integrity of a new policy. This is Jokowi as Nelson Mandela.
His third appointment of the day is an event to celebrate Children's Day. During the drive to the Dufan amusement park, he listens to his favourite music by bands like Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. The governor is an avid heavy metal fan and is also an amateur musician. When his favourite band Metallica played a concert in Jakarta, the bass player gave Jokowi an instrument with the inscription: "Keep playing that cool, funky bass."
More than 2,000 cheering children await Jokowi. His staff has written him a speech, but he quickly sets it aside to improvise a quiz with the children ("What is the name of your governor?") and spontaneously promises the winners a bicycle. At the end of the event, he invites one of the students to join him on the stage to sing a duet of the popular patriotic song "My Country" with him. There are standing ovations. This is Jokowi as Mick Jagger.
Many are unaware that he is a member of the opposition Indonesian Democratic Party -- Struggle. He is still playing hard-to-get as the party tries to convince him to run for president. In polls, he receives twice as many votes as the second-most popular potential candidate, a former general. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ("SBY"), a retired army general and widely respected but unassertive politician, is ineligible to run for the presidency again in 2014, after having served two terms.
The popular governor is far more liberal than other representatives of power, more enlightened than a majority of his voters and will soon find himself being opposed by arch-conservatives. So far, there have been no dramatic setbacks in and around Jakarta for "tolerant Islam," but there have been a few pinpricks.
In September, the finale of the Miss World pageant had to be moved to the majority Hindu resort island of Bali. And in a Jakarta district, more than 2,000 residents signed a petition against a local politician appointed by Jokowi, not as a result of incompetence, but because she, as a Christian, was supposedly "unsuitable for a primarily Muslim city district." In a coup for the liberal faction, Jokowi kept the woman in office.
However, open-mindedness decreases in proportion to the distance one travels outside of major cities. And in one part of the country, Islamists are practicing the opposite of the cosmopolitan beliefs of big city residents. They live in a city whose name is synonymous with one of the worst natural disasters of the last 100 years.
The Strictly Islamic Province of Aceh
The flight on a Boeing 737 from Jakarta to the north-western tip of Sumatra lasts almost three hours, and the scenery of an enormous green carpet of dense jungle below is breathtaking. Upon closer inspection, cleared areas become noticeable: giant palm oil plantations. Occasionally there is a plume of smoke rising from the jungle, apparently the result of slash-and-burn agriculture.
In June, the smoke clouds coming from Sumatra were so bad that Indonesia's neighbours, Malaysia and Singapore, lodged bitter complaints. The Indonesian president had to apologize and promised to crack down on the practice in the future. But palm oil is a big business in which many people profit, apparently including some of the country's top political figures. Indonesia occupies a disgraceful 118th place in the latest Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International, well below China and India.
But Banda Aceh must be one of the cleanest and most orderly cities in Indonesia. This is partly a result of the disaster that struck on Dec. 26, 2004. At first, an earthquake with a magnitude of 9.1 struck the region, and then monster waves buried large areas near the coast. Tens of thousands died in Banda Aceh alone, and parts of the city were completely destroyed. It was rebuilt with international funds and donations, resulting in spacious streets with roundabouts and minibuses known as labi-labi, which actually operate on time in Banda Aceh.
The autonomous province of Aceh, with a population of about 5 million, including 250,000 in the capital, is now tightly managed -- very tightly, in fact. The province is ruled by religious fanatics, and a strict version of Islamic Sharia law is rigorously applied.
A young woman was flogged near the provincial capital because she was caught kissing her boyfriend in a park. The morality police conduct regular inspections. Anyone with long hair is considered "punk" and can expect to be locked up. It is considered indecent for schoolgirls to wear trousers.
Sulaiman Abda, deputy chairman of the regional parliament, feels that the current punishments are too lenient. He is one of the supporters of a bill to expand public flogging, which would call for 40 lashes for delinquents caught with alcohol, 60 for gamblers and 100 for people engaging in homosexual activities. The bill stands a real chance of being approved. "It reflects the norms in our society," says Abda.
Westerners Stay Away
Aceh was once a melting pot of many cultures. Legend has it that the name consists of the first letters of the names of the different nationalities that left their mark on the region: Arabs, Chinese, Europeans and Hindus. Aceh was an independent sultanate for decades. It became a trouble spot after Indonesian independence, with separatists still waging a bloody war just before the tsunami struck.
European mediators used the confusion of the natural disaster to convince the opposing sides to sign a peace agreement in 2005, but it came at a high price. The new Islamist leadership was recruited from the guerrilla movement, and the high degree of autonomy granted by the central government led to Aceh becoming a state within a state.
City leaders insist that Banda Aceh's future lies in tourism, and they point to the region's spectacular beaches and coral reefs as evidence. But the majority of visitors are from Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. Westerners, accustomed to bars and clubs, find the restrictions associated with religious prohibitions hard to accept.
While German experts are still manning a tsunami early warning station, otherwise almost all international aid workers have left the region. A museum commemorates the horrors of that day some nine years ago. A giant ship, which was seemingly lifted by an invisible hand and slammed onto the top of a building, testifies to the disaster and serves as a monument to an apocalyptic day.
A Painful Sacrifice
Still, the people in Surabaya, Bandung and Denpasar see the Islamist province as an insignificant, embarrassing aberration in their island world. Jokowi is an idol to young people in the lively big cities of Java and Bali. And many, especially men, also name Julia Perez, 33, as a role model.
The controversial pop singer, with her revealing outfits, has already flirted with politics and even ran for office in a local election in Pacitan, in eastern Java. But her other, more spectacular projects have attracted more attention. One of her CDs comes with a condom sealed into the packaging; she performed a pole dance on a traffic light post at a Jakarta intersection and, as evidence of her religious belief, handed out Korans in public while dressed in a miniskirt. Religious scholars were not pleased.
Yenny Wahid, 39, the daughter of former Indonesian President Abdurraham Wahid and the head of a foundation named after him, studies faith and its effects on society far more seriously. The country is suffering from economic problems which include rising inflation, a weakening currency, and the likely failure to reach its minimum goal of 6 percent economic growth in 2013. Could this aggravate religious tensions, or will Indonesia's gentle form of Islam be solidified and its tolerance of minority religions be strengthened even further?
Wahid wears a headscarf, tied loosely around her neck. There is no dress code in her office in an old Jakarta villa, and petitioners in short skirts are not turned away. The foundation awards grants and only supports projects involving members of different religions. Wahid knows exactly when her ideals are violated. For example, when officials in Bogor in western Java blocked the construction of a Catholic church some time ago. Or, says Wahid, when members of the Ahmadiyya religious community are repeatedly harassed. Because of their belief that Mohammed was not the last prophet of Allah, the Indonesian Ulema Council views them as heretics. According to its fatwa, they can only protect themselves from persecution by renouncing their "false doctrine."
"I think it's a scandal that even the minister of religion calls up on the Ahmadiyya to do this," says Wahid. However, she adds, Islamist parties are not on the rise. They captured less than 30 percent in recent elections, with polls showing that their popularity is now in decline.
A few months ago, President SBY offered Wahid the deputy chairmanship of the governing party, but she declined. There is talk that Wahid could imagine cooperating with the opposition party, which would then make Jokowi its candidate, with Wahid then becoming minister of religion. "I have a high opinion of Jokowi," says Wahid, but adds that she is currently unwilling to confirm or rule out any options.
Meanwhile, the governor of Jakarta is trying to clear away all obstacles to his further political career. This includes a particularly painful sacrifice. When Jokowi heard the rumour that he may have issued a permit for the performance of his favourite band in Jakarta in return for the gift of a Metallica instrument, he turned over the instrument to the anti-corruption office. The commemorative item was declared government property and will probably be sold at a charity auction.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan