JUDY WOODRUFF: Across the international dateline, voting has just started in Indonesia’s presidential elections. This rising power in East Asia and ally of the United States is seeing a very hotly contested race that will help determine the future path of the world’s largest Muslim country.Special correspondent Kira Kay recently joined the campaign trail and has this report about a new breed of Indonesian politician. It was produced in partnership with the Bureau for International Reporting.
KIRA KAY: It’s a full day of whistle-stop campaigning for the presidential candidate.
Morning begins with a visit to a green market, with the area farmers eager to showcase their wares. The candidate then stops to admire the craftsmanship of local textile workers, a natural photo-op. Across town, it’s an audience with the all-important teachers association, with a promise to invest in both primary and secondary education nationwide.
Such grassroots politicking may be familiar on the streets of Iowa or New Hampshire, but this is Palembang, Indonesia. And the candidate, Joko Widodo, nicknamed Jokowi, is running to lead this Southeast Asian country of 250 million people, the world’s largest Muslim nation.
At a time when Islam, the military and democracy are at loggerheads in countries like Egypt and Turkey, Indonesia’s transition from past military dictatorship to vibrant political openness stands out.
And Jokowi has become a one-man symbol of this dynamic process.
DOUGLAS RAMAGE, Bower Group Asia: The rise of Jokowi is extraordinary, because it represents the new Indonesia.
KIRA KAY: Douglas Ramage is an analyst with Bower Group Asia.
DOUGLAS RAMAGE: And if he becomes president, he’d be the first president in Asia’s history who is not from an elite background of money, bureaucracy, political parties, or the military.
He doesn’t look presidential. He doesn’t speak with a bureaucratic or authoritarian kind of voice. He has what we would think of as authenticity. Kind of like the question we ask in the United States: Who would you rather have — go to a barbecue with? Jokowi is the kind of person someone wants to have a bowl of noodles with on the side of the street.
KIRA KAY: At times, Jokowi displays the awkwardness of an unseasoned national candidate. But everywhere he goes, he enjoys a rock star response from the crowds, sometimes startling even the candidate himself.
Supporter Joko Supriyatin showed off his prized campaign T-shirt:
JOKO SUPRIYATIN (through interpreter): We love Jokowi, and we are proud to have a leader like him. That’s why we are willing to buy the T-shirt, to donate our money so that he can become president. He symbolizes hope for people like us.
KIRA KAY: Indonesian democracy didn’t always look so certain. For three decades, the country was ruled by anti-communist strongman Suharto, supported by billions of dollars of aid from the United States.
But frustration with his corrupt leadership finally boiled over on the streets, with student-led protests turning bloody, but ultimately chasing Suharto from power in 1998. Even then, Indonesia faced turmoil. The Asian financial crisis was in full swing. There were separatist movements and religious conflicts dotting the archipelago, and a string of Islamic terrorist attacks, including the 2002 nightclub bombings in Bali.
But one early reform helped stabilize the region, says Douglas Ramage.
DOUGLAS RAMAGE: Indonesia used to be one of the most centrally organized countries in the world. It was run from Jakarta, this vast archipelago, highly authoritarian system, run from the center. Local communities, local groups didn’t have any responsibility or authority over their own communities and their lives.
So one of the strongest demands of the democracy movement was also to decentralize, put power in the hands of local governments and people all over the country.
KIRA KAY: People like Jokowi, a furniture maker from the central Indonesian town of Solo, who got tired of the red tape and bribes entrepreneurs like him faced, so he ran for mayor.
DOUGLAS RAMAGE: He decided he could do a better job than the old corrupt elite running his city. He ran. The people loved him. And he was elected once, and then again with over 90 percent of the vote in a popular election.
KIRA KAY: His success in Solo brought him national attention, and, in 2012, he ran for the powerful position of governor of Jakarta, beating the favored incumbent to lead the capital city of 10 million people.
There, Jokowi perfected the so-called blusukan, his signature habit of dropping in unannounced to inspect the work of city officials, or strolling in rubber boots to signal his attention to Jakarta’s notorious flooding problems.
Today, it is easy to find supporters of Jokowi among the urban poor of Jakarta. At a health clinic, we met Siti Rokayah and her 11-year-old son, Faisal, who’d been up all night sick. Last year, all of Jakarta’s poor were issued health cards that provide them with free and fast medical care.
SITI ROKAYAH (through interpreter): It is such a contrast from the old program. Back then, I needed to get different letters from my neighborhood chief and district chief just to state that I’m poor. Jokowi also helped poor students like my son get uniforms and books. He really changed my life, especially since I’m a widow and have no income.
KIRA KAY: And not far from the clinic, residents of the Petogogan neighborhood are moving into new homes, built uphill from their original slum dwellings that were regularly ravaged by flooding and sewage. Siti Khadijah and her four children are part of the pilot program.
SITI KHADIJAH (through interpreter): Jokowi came here and he felt that the neighborhood was too cramped, too filthy. He also saw how the neighborhood below got flooded all the time. So he made a plan to refurbish the neighborhood so it’s more livable. It wasn’t a very long process. In less than a year, the houses got built.
KIRA KAY: But even such a stellar record may not be enough to launch a relative newcomer to national office. Jokowi entered the presidential race with a 30-point lead over other contenders. But his numbers have slid as some voters begin to question his experience, says Douglas Ramage.
DOUGLAS RAMAGE: Running a country of 250 million people is very different from running a city of a half-a-million, or even the capital city of 10 million.
And the opposition, I think, has quite effectively negatively defined him as a man — a nice man, but who’s devoid of policy substance and not ready for the national stage.
KIRA KAY: Jokowi’s rival for the presidency is his polar opposite. Prabowo Subianto, a former general with a militaristic style that includes uniforms and highly choreographed stadium rallies.
Prabowo evokes Indonesia’s strongman past, and his poll numbers have been rising as Jokowi’s have plummeted.
Andreas Harsono is with human rights watch.
ANDREAS HARSONO, Human Rights Watch: Prabowo is doing a very rigorous campaign. His organization is solid. His volunteers are all very well- organized. They have a lot of money. A lot of his former military colleagues are helping him in organizing his campaign, to be compared with Jokowi, who only built his campaign over the last three months.
KIRA KAY: But Prabowo’s military history is also stained with abuses, including the kidnapping and torture of democracy activists, for which he was never held accountable.
ANDREAS HARSONO: Back in 1998, Prabowo was — actually was to be court-martialed. But when he was called by the national commission on human rights, he moved to Jordan for three years. And then, because of political considerations, long delay and, of course, he came from a very prominent family, it didn’t materialize.
KIRA KAY: Prabowo was denied a visa to the United States following his involvement in the 1998 upheaval. But, for some Indonesian voters, his leadership skills outweigh any unease.
MAN: We need Indonesia to be more known. We have power. We have something to be shown. And Prabowo can give all that Indonesian people need. Everyone has mistakes. Everyone has a past. But everyone has a future. Prabowo has — that’s something he’s done in the past, but I’m sure he can fix that.
KIRA KAY: On the eve of the presidential elections, the race is a dead heat. But whether or not Jokowi wins, it is clear that his impact on Indonesian politics will be a lasting one, as he has forged a path to the national stage for a new generation of local leaders.