The quote I love best about Jokowi’s win came from Lamb Of God singer Randy Blythe, posted on Instagram: “Holy crap! The World’s First Heavy Metal President.” It captured the down-to-earth popularity of the man. At the same time, entirely without intending to, it hinted at a certain political vacuity that hangs about Joko Widodo.

Indonesia never ceases to astonish with its optimism. Thais descend into the next kneejerk coup, Australians vote for climate change denialist Tony Abbott, the Arab Spring destroys itself in civil wars, and Europeans vote against Europe.

But Indonesians happily say no to another New Order general and go for Mr Everyman. The first president not to emerge from the nation’s elite; a furniture-dealer president; someone who leads by example, talks to folk, has little time for ceremony, and who loves to roll up his sleeves and get to work. Who can help admiring the good humour, patience and sheer hope of this nation of 130 million voters who pulled this off? They conducted one of the most polarising elections in memory without a single bomb explosion, and only Prabowo talks of massive fraud.

At the same time there is no denying that Joko Widodo is no intellectual with a clear analysis of what needs to change to make Indonesia a more equal, more prosperous, more fair society.

He is not like Gus Dur, who had been writing clear, inspiring pieces for years about the shape of substantive democracy in Indonesia’s future. Jokowi’s speeches have been banal, not to say anti-political – a ‘mental revolution’, and more infrastructure projects.

When Prabowo suggested, notabene during the campaign, that direct elections were ‘un-Indonesian,’ Jokowi didn’t fight back. As far as I know he never talked about the human rights agenda, about Papua, about historical cimes, or any of the other urgent social problems the country faces. He looks relaxed. Has he come into this presidency expecting big things to happen? It doesn’t look like it.

A lack of programmatic ambition is no doubt part of his popular appeal. People loved him for not promising to be a ‘strong leader.’ They may have been critical of SBY’s indecisiveness, but they didn’t want another Suharto-era autocrat.

Curiously enough, Jokowi’s lack of ambition may have also made him less of a threat to the Jakarta elite. Although he pokes fun at the most pretentious among them with his checkered shirt appearance, they show nothing like the antipathy towards him that they did towards Gus Dur.

His campaign team included some notorious figures from the old military establishment. Retired spymaster General AM Hendropriyono, the Butcher of Lampung (1989), has been linked to the assassination of human rights hero Munir in 2004. Retired General Wiranto was indicted in East Timor in 2003 over crimes against humanity in 1999. Since his win, key figures from most of the parties that had campaigned against Jokowi rushed to embrace him, declaring they had no disagreement with him.

In short, although Jokowi is surrounded by some of the best and brightest intellectuals to advise him (which will certainly empower his presidency), he and they are surrounded by a large, rather cohesive, political class suspicious of serious change. Unlike Gus Dur, who challenged the military by sacking Wiranto, Jokowi has not indicated he will challenge anybody or anything directly.

All this is happening just at a time when the presidency has become more central than ever to Indonesian national politics. Recent constitutional changes have diminished the role of parliaments at all levels and left Indonesia with a much stronger presidency than before.

Self-funding rules that the parties themselves introduced now expose them to an unending cycle of corruption scandals. The failure of political parties to take up issues that are important to the public have fed growing cynicism about the basic institutions of parliamentary democracy. The best NGOs in Indonesia working on social change have long decided not to bother with parliament. They concentrate instead on direct lobbying to the president.

Jokowi’s style is to encourage such direct discussions. He did it in Solo and Jakarta, and wants to do it as president. This kind of populism is an attractive idea – who wants another president like SBY who hardly ever answered unprepared questions?

But it is actually not the best way to build a democracy. Many NGOs know their stuff and do good work, but they are not elected. The presidential populism of which we might see more favours special interests, while the need is to somehow bring much larger portions of the population into the political process.

That doesn’t mean Jokowi will not be a civilised president: someone who leads this great nation by setting a tone of dignity, simplicity, respect, openness. These are the qualities that attracted the millions of optimistic young volunteers to support his campaign through the social media.

What a contrast with the symbolism of resentment, intolerance, and autocracy Prabowo radiated. But people should not expect him to be an activist president. Instead he will be a facilitating one; a president who gives opportunities to people.

Perhaps, as he did as mayor of Solo, he will give opportunities next year to those who wish to mark the 50th anniversary of the horrendous anticommunist pogroms after 1 October 1965. Perhaps he will give space to small business entrepreneurs seeking some help against the big international corporations destroying their livelihoods. Perhaps he will support those who want more religious pluralism, who want to preserve the forests owned by indigenous peoples, who want more women in charge, or who want more money spent on universal health insurance.

Randy Blythe is actually not politically vacuous. When Nelson Mandela died he wrote: ‘He sacrificed his own freedom so that his people could one day be equals in their own native country, because he knew something had to change. He was a living example of DOING THE RIGHT THING, NO MATTER WHAT THE COST.’

Jokowi himself is probably no Mandela, but he is more open than previous presidents to the many aspiring Nelson Mandelas among Indonesia’s citizenry. This is a presidency for Indonesia’s citizens. They must seize this opportunity now.


Gerry van Klinken ([email protected]) is senior researcher at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV) in Leiden.