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Should Jokowi run in the 2014 presidential election?

Despite declining to comment, Jakarta governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s popularity has brought him out on top in various surveys, which is bad news for other aspiring presidential candidates.

The presidential aspirants, who have officially announced their candidacy, are aware that not only is his popularity genuine, but it has been nourished by his grassroots approach as well as his image as a kerakyatan (populist) leader. It is natural that real popularity overcomes anything constructed through political marketing and advertisement.

Despite emerging as the most popular candidate to replace President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), the public is waiting to see if Jokowi gets the green light from his political patron, Megawati Soekarnoputri, chairwoman of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P).

Regardless, I am inclined to argue that he should run in the 2014 presidential election. The reason is not a political calculation, but rather for the path of democracy.

To a certain degree, Jokowi’s rise is reminiscent of “Obamania” in the US in 2008 and SBY fever in 2004: The general public is thirsty for political refreshment.

In the context of Indonesian democracy, the public is against elitist negotiation, flimsy governmental action and corruption. People cherish political merit and want a leader who is responsive to their expectations. Undoubtedly, at the moment, Jokowi is the fore runner in this race.

It is hard to find analysis undermining the successful progress of Indonesian democracy. After 15 years, democratization has been flowing without any serious disruption. Political deception, corrupt leadership, violence and other kinds of democratic deficit occur in the extremely pluralistic setting of Indonesia.

The democratic system looks secure because checks and balances on the framework of institutions have already been established, the electoral process — to guarantee leadership changes — is also successfully institutionalized.

The robust civil society engagement in all areas of public interest has kept an autocratic system from reviving here. Egyptian or South American “political diseases” are unlikely to happen in Indonesia.

The progress of democracy, however, requires more than just procedural good stories and institutional achievements.

Democratic governments should provide the concrete delivery of public goods. Indonesian democracy is facing this malady as public trust in the state and political institutions is steadily decreasing due to rampant deficiencies in public affairs and ineffective character of political leadership.

Jokowi emerges with leadership that shows real commitment and concrete policies fitted to public expectations. His efforts to reform bureaucracy will transform the corrupt bureaucratic individuals into true public servants.

Other aspects of his “innovation” could be seen when he led Surakarta; where he “put the public first”.

The rising profile of Jokowi also reveals the meaning of public leadership in politics. Leadership style is an important part of success. People respect political leaders who are eager to develop direct relationships with the grassroots.

Jokowi’s method of blusukan (unannounced visit) may fill the gap between the people and the political representatives — who commonly reduce the genuine meaning of democracy.

Public enthusiasm in welcoming Jokowi’s impromptu visit signals people’s longing for the presence of a close leader. Whether the outcome of the visit is effective or not remains to be seen but Jokowi’s direct touch has already sparked a new hope for a more people-oriented regime.

Jokowi’s leadership style is common in many popular democratic systems. But he is the first leader in our post-reform era to break down the elitist political culture.

Considering his background, Jokowi was nobody in politics back in 2005 when he won the PDI-P ticket to contest the Surakarta mayoral election. He has no affiliation with either the New Order or the political movement of the 1990s. He was just a local furniture entrepreneur who successfully managed his business.

As Jokowi is untarnished by past political regimes, his emergence gives the impression of genuineness. If decentralization and local democracy can offer an alternative source of leadership recruitment and innovative practice of governability, Jokowi is one of its fruits.

Indonesia should start to expect national leadership in the future to take “local experience” as a plus. Jokowi grew up in the local, political arena that required political leaders to engage closely with people and perform concretely for them as the condition for legitimacy.

Criticism certainly could be addressed to him, but one cannot ignore that he performs “genuine” grassroots leadership.

Democracy is about the choice of the people. If the polls reflect the popular preference, the characteristics of leadership displayed by Jokowi become a historical quest. Political parties and their patrons may decide, but hoping Jokowi runs for the presidency in 2014 is not purely a political calculation. Jokowi fever may be a signal of political transformation toward democratic maturity. Indonesian democracy risks stagnation or even backlash if the transformation is eliminated.

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Public enthusiasm in welcoming Jokowi’s impromptu visit signals people’s longing for the presence of a close leader.

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The writer is a lecturer in the department of politics and government, Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta. He is completing his thesis on local populism in decentralized Indonesia, selecting Surakarta city under Joko Widodo as the case study, to obtain his PhD in politics at Victoria University, Melbourne.

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