The perils of popularity

By Liam Gammon

During his successful Governor of Jakarta election campaign in 2012, Joko Widodo (or Jokowi) liked to tell a story.

He would recall how, shortly after being elected mayor of the small Java city of Solo in 2005, top public servants mistook him for a city hall aide.

He delighted in recounting the surprise on the bureaucrats' faces when informed that the lanky, self-effacing former furniture merchant was, in fact, their new boss.

You have to admit that at first glance, the man Indonesians chose as their seventh president in July does not look like your typical politician.

On the campaign trail, his stump speech consisted of little more than self-deprecating jokes and indignant rebuttals of smears made by opponents.

He was inarticulate on television, his lack of expertise in macroeconomics and foreign policy always obvious.

As one observer commented, he looked like he was running for mayor of a country town all over again.

The impression that Jokowi was unready for the presidency, along with the aforementioned smear campaigns about his religious background, took a terrible toll on his popularity during the presidential campaign.

He shed 30 percentage points in the polls in the months leading up to voting day.

In the end, however, for every voter who looked at him and decided he was not presidential material, at least one other saw in him an honest everyman who looked and spoke like them.

It is difficult to overstate how important it is for Indonesia's democratic development that Joko Widodo was elected president.

July's election is not important only because of who won, but because of who lost.

His opponent was Prabowo Subianto, a hot-tempered Soeharto-era military commander who made it into the innermost circle of the old regime by marrying the dictator's daughter.

After the New Order regime fell in 1998, Prabowo temporarily left Indonesia in disgrace after being accused of the kidnap and torture of activists.

But he worked for years in preparation for the 2014 polls to position himself as a champion of pro-poor policies and rapid economic development with a nationalist flavour, shrewdly staying in opposition as two-time president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's popularity declined.

On top of populist rants about the foreign theft of Indonesia's wealth, Prabowo's authoritarian bent came to the fore during the campaign.