The Man in the Madras Shirt: An Outsider Campaigns for Jakarta’s Top Job

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Joko Widodo

Joko Widodo only gets through a few bites of his chicken porridge. Over the course of a breakfast meeting, the mayor of Solo, who is now running for governor in Jakarta, must pause every few moments to pose for photographs with passersby. They have no trouble spotting him, thanks to his trademark red-and-blue madras top. “I chose this shirt because it is colorful and different from what officials always wear,” says the soft-spoken politician. “People are tired of the same old thing over and over.”

The same could be said of politics in Jakarta, an economically vibrant but perennially mismanaged city of 14 million that is plagued by floods, corruption and debilitating traffic. The sprawling capital plays and outsize role in Indonesia’s decentralized political sphere and, as such, the July 11 election is being closely watched both within and beyond the city limits. That Joko, better known as Jokowi, is from central Java does not seem to bother his big-city supporters. “We will pray for you, Jokowi,” promised one fan as she posed with him at a hotel.

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Joko, 51, got his start making furniture in his hometown of Solo and eventually grew his small business into a successful export firm. His experience wading through red tape to secure export licenses was part of the reason he went into politics, his friends say. His seven-year stint in politics has earned him accolades at home and abroad. Last year, Indonesia’s Ministry of Home Affairs named him the country’s best mayor. This year, the City Mayors Foundation, a London-based think thank focused on urban affairs, nominated him for the 2012 World Mayor Prize. His city, Solo, was selected as a case study for a Princeton University program on successful societies.

Since becoming mayor in 2005, Joko has relocated hundreds of street vendors and converted a slum area into a city park. He imposed strict zoning regulations to halt the relentless encroachment of malls and put a female face on public order by hiring dozens of women to help keep the peace. He has also worked hard to bring various religious communities closer together, he says. Solo is home to a sizable Christian community as well as the Muslim boarding school that produced several of the Bali bombers. “The city hall was burned down three times before I was mayor,” he says, recalling a tense time when residents had little faith in the city’s rulers. “In the seven years that I have been in office there have been no more sweepings,” he adds, referring to vigilante hunts by religious hard-liners.

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Success in elevating the rich culture of the Javanese people, to which most of Solo’s disparate religious groups belong, has been key to helping him restore the city’s image as a safe place to visit, hold exhibitions and do business, Joko says. A “cultural” approach, he insists, is the best way to nurture a common identity and shared values for the benefit of the city as a whole. “Developing Javanese culture is one way to neutralize the extremists who are never going to be Westernized or start listening to Lady Gaga,” suggests José Delgado, a Spanish businessman who has known and worked with Joko since 1996. “He realizes that the Javanese need to reclaim and strengthen their culture to defeat radical ideology.”

Joko says jumping from Solo to Jakarta makes sense. “The problems are similar, just on a larger scale,” he says. Of course, not everyone agrees. “The challenge is not just the size of the population,” explains Mega Kharisma, a political scientist at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta who has organized a debate with the candidates. “Jakarta is very heterogeneous and the problems are far more complex than they are in Solo, so Jokowi should not simplify things.”

The man to beat, incumbent governor Fauzi Bowo, has been making a similar argument on the campaign trail. He has secured the backing of the ruling Democratic Party and is expected to qualify for the runoff that will take place should no candidate garner the requisite 50% share of the vote. Joko, meanwhile, is predicted to be Fauzi’s toughest competitor. He has sworn not to put his face on any of the banners or billboards that have covered most of the city in the run-up to the poll. “People who want to support me can buy a shirt like mine,” he laughs. “I want to keep the city clean, not add to the clutter.”

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