In­done­sia's new eco­nomic model

The Pak Banker - - Front Page - Pankaj Mishra

IN­DONE­SIA'S most-promis­ing politi­cian, Joko Wi­dodo, who was elected gover­nor of Jakarta prov­ince last month, looks like Barack Obama: lean and coolly self-pos­sessed in a way that seems as much Bog­a­r­tian as Ja­vanese. Emerg­ing out of nowhere, and serenely vault­ing over the heads of es­tab­lish­ment politi­cians, he em­bod­ies the pos­si­bil­ity of change. But here the re­sem­blance to the US pres­i­dent ends.

Obama is fight­ing to win re­elec­tion. Jokowi, as Wi­dodo is pop­u­larly known, en­joyed hugely suc­cess­ful terms in of­fice as the mayor of the Cen­tral Ja­vanese city of Solo. Ful­fill­ing most of his prom­ises, he was re-elected with a vot­ing per­cent­age -- 90 per­cent -- more of­ten en­joyed by dic­ta­tors in the Cen­tral Asian "stans."

When I met Jokowi in Solo re­cently, as he was wait­ing to be sworn in as the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Jakarta, he ex­plained his elec­toral tri­umph. He said he had pre­ferred to work from "bot­tom-up" rather than "top-down." In a city of small mer­chants and traders, he had made it eas­ier to pro­cure busi­ness per­mits and li­censes. He had sup­ported lo­cal busi­ness­men and tra­di­tional crafts and in­dus­tries such as batik. In a coun­try no­to­ri­ous for cor­rup­tion and crony cap­i­tal­ism, he had fa­vored small-food-cart own­ers over global con­ve­nience store chains and shop­ping malls. Home­grown Growth Such a "bot­tom-up" record ben­e­fit­ted him greatly in Jakarta, which has many un­der­priv­i­leged, ru­ral mi­grants-cum- en­trepreneurs from Java. In In­done­sia, as in In­dia, eco­nomic lib­er­al­iza­tion has fa­vored big-busi­ness men, who have used their prox­im­ity to politi­cians to garner a dis­pro­por­tion­ate share of na­tional re­sources and in­come. The last gover­nor of Jakarta, and Jokowi's ri­val, for in­stance, turned out to own a Van Gogh paint­ing.

At one level, Jokowi's tac­tics re­mind you of pop­ulist politi­cians else­where in Asia: peo­ple who built up vote banks among the poor ma­jor­ity by rail­ing against big­busi­ness men and their po­lit­i­cal al­lies. To this cat­e­gory be­longs Thai­land's Thaksin Shi­nawa­tra as well as the chief min­is­ter of the In­dian state of West Ben­gal, Ma­mata Banerjee, who stands peren­ni­ally ready to thwart the most ten­ta­tive eco­nomic ini­tia­tive by In­dia's cen­tral gov­ern­ment.

But, un­like Thaksin, Jokowi ap­pears to have no shady links with the world of big busi­ness. And, un­like Banerjee, his pop­ulism is more than some un­cre­ative rab­bler­ous­ing.

Rather, Jokowi has qui­etly fo­cused on de­vel­op­ing a "peo­ple­cen­tered econ­omy." This in­volves help­ing to up­grade tra­di­tional crafts and skills so that lo­cal prod­ucts can com­pete with im­ports from China, while also deep­en­ing re­gional iden­ti­ties (a dis­tinc­tive fea­ture of cen­tral Ja­vanese cul­ture).

Jokowi's suc­cess has pre­dictably at­tracted In­done­sia's es­tab­lish­ment par­ties. There is much talk in Jakarta that Jokowi might stand for the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion due in 2014.

But Jokowi him­self dis­misses this spec­u­la­tion. He told me that he has a job to at­tend to in Jakarta. And it is an un­en­vi­ably for­mi­da­ble one. Jakarta is the chaotic set­ting, si­mul­ta­ne­ously, of floods, slums, poverty, crime, sub­sid­ing land, and some of the world's most no­to­ri­ous traf­fic jams.

Ac­cord­ing to Jokowi, Jakarta needs not more roads and free­ways -- the hun­dreds of new car own­ers ev­ery day would quickly turn those into park­ing lots as well -- but more pub­lic mass trans­port. A mono­rail project, long dor­mant, may now be re­vived.

Jokowi's rise points to some ma­jor shifts in Indonesian pol­i­tics. In re­cent years, a fast-grow­ing econ­omy and a de­cen­tral­ized ad­min­is­tra­tive struc­ture have em­pow­ered such fig­ures as bu­patis (re­gents) and wa­liko­tas (may­ors), who were pre­vi­ously nom­i­nated to their posts by the cen­tral gov­ern­ment in Jakarta.

Plun­der­ing gen­er­ous bud­gets and sell­ing off na­tional re­sources, many of these au­ton­o­mous of­fi­cials have con­firmed In­done­sia's rep­u­ta­tion as one of the world's most-cor­rupt coun­tries.

But oth­ers such as Jokowi and Surabaya's mayor, Tri Ris­ma­harini, rep­re­sent what Karim Raslan, one of the keen­est ob­servers of South­east Asia, calls "a dis­tinct but im­por­tant part of In­done­sia's fu­ture."

This is true in more ways than one. Jokowi's ap­peal in Jakarta tran­scended the eth­nic and reli­gious pas­sions that many of In­done­sia's po­lit­i­cal class are of­ten ea­ger to stoke. In the world's largest Mus­lim coun­try, Jokowi took a cal­cu­lated risk in choos­ing as his run­ning mate a bu­pati-turned-par­lia­men­tar­ian named Ba­suki Tja­haja Pur­nama (widely known as Ahok), who is both Chris­tian and eth­ni­cally Chi­nese.

To­gether, Jokowi and Ahok fended off many ma­li­cious at­tacks on their al­legedly un-Is­lamic out­look. They were helped by an in­creas­ingly ma­ture elec­torate -one that dis­trusts ve­nal and in­ept politi­cians more than it thrills to in­vo­ca­tions of reli­gious and eth­nic sol­i­dar­ity.

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