The power of charismatic politics in the world today has lately taken two extreme forms in Asia. In India, Narendra Modi came into office in May with a mandate unprecedented in the country since Indira Gandhi; in Indonesia, the victory of Joko Widodo (universally known as “Jokowi”) in July has made him the most popular Indonesian leader in half a century. From a distance, the two politicians appear to have much in common. Neither sprang fully formed from a political establishment: Modi started his career running a tea stall; Jokowi, a furniture-export company. Both come from a heartland of their respective nations: Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat, the home state of Gandhi; Jokowi was the governor of Jakarta and before that the mayor of Solo, an ancient center of Javanese culture. Both style themselves tribunes of the people, combining highly personalized media campaigns with a pragmatic sense of how to reform their bureaucracies, uproot corruption and deliver their countries into a prosperity so long deferred. Both make a great show of conducting on-the-spot checks of state services to test their performance—a stunt familiar enough in offices around the world, but novel in the creaking dynastic regimes these two politicians have inherited.
But the similarities end there. The Economist could not bring itself to endorse the market-friendly Modi, owing to his divisive, caste-based politics and alleged complicity in an anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002. By contrast, the election of Jokowi has been met with international enthusiasm. He has golden credentials when it comes to inclusiveness: his running mate for the governorship of Jakarta was Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian who would not have been a candidate sixteen years ago, when the Chinese minority was attacked for its closeness to Suharto’s New Order. Modi has made clear that his administration will follow the growth-based model of his economic gurus, including Arvind Panagariya and Jagdish Bhagwati, but Jokowi’s economic principles remain vague enough for people of any political orientation to find in him whatever they seek. Unlike Modi, who thrives in the spotlight, Jokowi’s charisma is largely a product of the media’s embrace of a politician who wades through flooded streets and spends as much time outdoors with the people as in his air-conditioned office. His speeches and rallies have been remarkably subdued, but every Indonesian is familiar with his personal story. At home and abroad, Jokowi is likened to President Obama—with some justice. An astounding amount of hope has been thrust upon the man. In the lead-up to the election, Jakartans crowded the porch outside his office just to get a glimpse of the governor who dresses like a becak driver. There is also something similar to Obama in Jokowi’s unflappably pragmatic outlook and his preference for technical solutions to political battle.
Jokowi has already survived a political contest that many feared would be stolen from him. His opponent for the presidency, Prabowo Subianto, is a former commander of the Indonesian Special Forces, who only seemed to leave his villa and paddock of Lusitanos for mass Sukarno-style rallies. Prabowo called on Indonesians to support a reversion to the country’s less democratic Constitution of 1945 and denounced the very admixture of cronyism, corruption and foreign investment that made his campaign possible. By choosing Jokowi, Indonesians have avoided their own version of Putin or Berlusconi. Democrats across the country have been breathing easier in recent weeks.
But the larger significance of Jokowi is what he and Indonesia represent for the region—Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand—and the world, which pays scant attention to its third-largest democracy and fourth-most-populous country. In the United States, in particular, Indonesia is routinely cited as an example of a successful Muslim democracy. Some of this praise is deserved. In the period since the fall of Suharto in 1998, Indonesia has conducted four general elections in its archipelago of 250 million people; it boasts the most critical domestic press of any country in Southeast Asia (the magazine Tempo, the publishing house Gramedia, the daily Jakarta Post); it has gone from having one of the most centralized states in the world to a genuinely federal government, with citizens voting directly for their local representatives; it has allowed East Timor to secede through a referendum; it has established a much-praised peace accord with the rebels in Aceh; it has not only allowed its citizens of Chinese origin to speak their language again but also officially celebrates the Lunar New Year. None of this was anticipated by anyone observing the Indonesian scene in the 1990s.