On the trail with Jokowi: notes and election synopsis


It was the last week of the legally sanctioned month-long campaign period for both presidential candidates Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Prabowo Subianto. I had the opportunity to assist a Jakarta Post reporter cover this final stretch, which amounted to a blur of stump speeches, an absurd amount of tobacco consumption by the nicotine fiends that make up most of Jokowi’s press following, and waiting—so much waiting—only to be swiftly punctuated by the candidate’s unpredictable departure and arrival times; transitions that were always accompanied by hyper-energetic mobs of people clamoring to get even just a glimpse of Indonesia’s only rising populist reformist politician.

Jokowi greets supporters in Sukabumi on his way to meet a influential religious figure

Jokowi greets supporters in Sukabumi on his way to meet an influential religious figure

I’ve mainly helped Margareth—the senior reporter—record stump speeches and keep an open ear for relevant happenings for her continuing coverage. But it was still exhausting. The quickness with which that the Jokowi camp was moving to secure last minute votes in the Jawa Barat province (West Jawa) has the whole entourage of press, die-hard volunteers, and the candidate and his innercircle bouncingg from village to city along winding mountain roads at a draining pace. Everyone’s continuing stamina was commendable, seeing as half the convoy was fasting. But many made exceptions for the grueling nature of accompanying the Jokowi camp on the campaign trail.

My van mates furiously write articles via Blackberry phones

My van-mates furiously write articles on Blackberry phones

Word had it among most of the press that Jokowi isn’t polling well in Jawa Barat, due to it being a stronghold for political and religious parties that lean Prabowo, and who hold significant influence over local populations. It also has the largest number of registered voters of any province, around 17.5 percent, in all of Indonesia’s 188 million voters, making it an extremely important region to win over. Unfortunately for Jokowi, it is one that previously hasn’t seen him in a positive light due to what his people have dubbed; “the black campaign”. A recent volley of slanderous attacks have come from Prabowo’s camp in the last few weeks (both directly and indirectly) regarding the authenticity of Jokowi’s claimed Islamic identity and Indonesian roots, tapping into the psyche of a allegedly conservative Muslim provincial population who care deeply about religious values, especially those held by their potential leaders. Earlier in the month-long campaign season, a Jakarta tabloid released an article claiming that Jokowi was actually a Christian, only later to be revealed as a planted story. The editor-in-chief of the tabloid also allegedly has strong connections with the outgoing president SBY’s inner circle, and the Democratic Party, which has endorsed Prabowo within the last few days. Of course, Prabowo came rushing to the defense of the publication, offering up financial assistance for legal aid. A former hefty double-digit point lead that Jokowi held has now shrunk to between 2 and 7 percent.

Jokowi has repeatedly refused to engage in such tactics, trying to keep himself and his campaign operation above the fray of petty personal jabs, a political or values-based decision which people have mixed feelings about. When being interviewed by several New York Times reporters in Sukabumi during a convoy-wide rest stop, he acknowledged that the black campaign has had some effect in closing the gap between him and Prabowo. “Prabowo’s campaign has attacked you, and many people have attacked you, and the poll gap is shrinking. Shouldn’t you attack back?” asked one of the journalists. Jokowi’s English is not the best, but he gets the gist of the questions asked of him. After a brief pause to find the words, he says “No, no, that’s not my way.”

Jokowi at Cirebong rally

Jokowi at a rally in Cirebong

Jawa Barat is home to a number of political and religious organizations which hold the keys to whole communities of potential voters. The Prosperous Justice Party, or PKS, is one of the most prominent and powerful groups in the region. It stands on a platform of intertwining Islamic values into all public life and anti-corruption in government. However, they’ve decided to side with Prabowo after a period of uncertainty, due to their doubts about Jokowi’s commitment to Islamic values induced by the black campaign. Prominent governmental figures in the province lean the same way. The governor of the province is a known member of PKS while the mayor of Bandung is similarly affiliated.

Then there is the presence of the Golkar party (Party of Functional Groups) in Jawa Barat, one of the oldest political organizations in Indonesia, created in 1964 just before the start of Suharto’s authoritarian New Order regime, as a military-funded counter to the heavily established and now disbanded PKI Indonesian communist party. Once Suharto took power via a coup, the Golkar was reorganized to operate in his government’s personal interest, swallowing up trade unions and other parties, arguing good civic engagement is loyalism to the government, and suppressing political dissent with the employment of violent gangs and thugs. Since the fall of Suharto Golkar has maintained a foothold in Indonesian politics, winning heavily in Parliamentary elections in the late 1990’s and holding a slowly decreasing yet substantial amount of seats since then. They’ve endorsed Prabowo as well, which is no surprise, given his Suharto-era connections and authoritarian political philosophy.

A woman holds a copy of a prominent Muslim publication which endorsed Jokowi

A woman holds a copy of an Islamic publication which endorsed Jokowi

(For more information on most of Indonesia’s active political parties, look here)

To compensate, in addition to general larger rallies, Jokowi spent the week doggedly visiting pesantrans (Islamic boarding schools) and local Islamic religious leaders to drum up support. The selling points of his presidential bid are a mix of his humble commoner background (having come from a family of poor furniture makers who lived on the banks of a flood-prone river in East Jawa), being an effective reformist, or rather his good cutting-through-the-bureaucratic-bullshit track record as both mayor of Sukarata (Solo) and governor of Jakarta, and his intensely populist and pro-democratic principles. Primarily he has been pushing his poor man roots. He starts off every stump speech by describing his face as “desa”, as having the looks of an ordinary villager. In line with his racist and nationalistic rhetoric, rumors have previously come out of the Prabowo camp claiming that Jokowi is of Singaporean origin, to which this was a counter. “Could my face be this ugly if I wasn’t a commoner?” Jokowi jokingly asked a crowd in Bandung, playing off of an unfortunate stereotype. The people went wild.

Up until now, both campaigns have been based largely on both personal character and background, with the Jokowi – Jusuf Kalla (his VP running mate) camp only recently releasing an official platform on Thursday, July 3rd at a Bandung hotel press briefing. It is composed of a 9-point list of proposals for policies and programs, all of which are very ambitious. Some of the more notable aspects are a single-payer healthcare system through Jokowi’s heavily touted yet for the most part successful free Jakarta Health Card (JKS) system, which he intends to implement nationally. Similarly, he wants to create a free universal education system and up the pay and benefits for teachers. Then there are subsidies to poor rural farming villages, the creation of a public bank to dish out the funds, the building of rural health clinics, and the development of agricultural land outside of already crowded and over worked Jawa. He points out Indonesia’s continued importing of basic food products such as sugar and soybeans, and outlines resource independence through increased domestic production. The platform also includes increased State funding for pesantrans, which, though not secular, is a necessary bone thrown towards the conservative Muslim constituents that he has been so hard-pressed to win over. Whether he can actually implement his proposals is another story.

Sukabumi residents react to Jokowi's arrival

Sukabumi residents react to Jokowi

He comes off as the people’s man, one who has no prior connection with the circles of the dominant oligarchic political elite, and one who genuinely cares about the marginalized masses. His governing and campaign styles reflect this, mainly his on the street appearances in slums and rural areas to meet and engage with the people, something I’ve been told is entirely unheard of in any Indonesian politician or bureaucrat. The dredging of the Pluit Dam reservoir and the relocation of the surrounding residents in North Jakarta was achieved almost entirely in this manner, with then-active governor Jokowi making random arrivals in the area to talk with reluctant locals and hash out issues that various residents had with the mass move. His campaign has capitalized on the Jokowi brand for effect, continuously making random stops so the candidate can be flung at the adoring crowds while engaging in ‘down-to-earth’ activities such as buying gorengan fried snacks from a street vendor or praying at a nearby low-profile mosque, moments which reporters and photojournalists lapped up with vigor, myself included.

Jokowi's personal photographer has the vantage point

Jokowi’s personal photographer has the vantage point

Jokowi heads back to his car, followed by crowds

Jokowi heads back to his car after venturing into a village, followed by crowds & press

Jokowi stops to buy gorengan from street vendor

Jokowi stops to buy gorengan from street vendor

On the surface, the efforts seem to have been effective, if only to judge by the outward appearance of the frantic rock-star status hysteria that consumes communities when the candidate rolls into town. I’m sure the free t-shirts don’t hurt either, which were tossed from cars in the convoy to onlookers and precariously handed to passing motorcyclists. Even the journalists in the press vans were handing them out and proudly displaying the two fingered V (symbolizing Jokowi’s position as 2nd on ballots) out of car windows, doing away with supposed objective neutrality. The Jakarta Post office isn’t much different, with Jokowi shirts being flung around with glee. Members of the press hold no reservations in expressing their biases in casual conversation. Some may even be bought off, and though I never actually saw money change hands, Margareth told me that the campaign press coordinator tried to bribe her in the form of one million rupiah ($100) in ‘travel money’, which she declined. She has both ethical integrity as well the threat of being fired from the Post hanging over her head. She insisted that yes, while the bribe was an act of corruption, it’s nothing compared to the lengths the Prabowo camp will go to financially win over the press (or scare them into submission).

Convoy is held up in traffic by masses of fans in Sukabumi

Convoy is held up in traffic by masses of accompanying motorcyclist fans

Prior to temporarily joining the campaign, another senior reporter at the Post, Bagus, was telling me how it is not uncommon for candidates on all political levels to pay people to attend rallies and act out in an overly enthusiastic manner. Sometimes hard cash even gets handed directly to attendees’ onsite. I did see numerous people on the side of roads hold up their hands and rubbing fingers together as if to say “where is my money?” when the convoy passed by. But I’ve yet to witness such blatant vote-buying at Jokowi’s events, and most reporters will tell me that the people who attend his rallies are there of their own accord. Jokowi is a candidate to be cautiously excited for. For the many Indonesians who don’t make up the oligarchic elite, he’s a breath of fresh air.

Supporters at Cirebong rally

Chaos at Cirebong rally

Supporters in Cirebong await Jokowi's arrival.

Supporters await Jokowi’s arrival.


What gets people excited is both the character he embodies and his message. Whether it’s of his own accord or constructed from the minds of his political team, his from the bottom-up populist ideals has the politically jaded hopeful. He’s routinely called for a “mental revolution”, which has been described by Margareth as a reversal of the usual top-down hierarchical decision making process and the self-empowerment of the people through widespread educational reform and access. At times Jokowi has lashed out against the controversial national exams, which critics claim serve no purpose other than to test students’ submissiveness and memorization skills, crushing creativity and independent critical thinking. Even the organization of his campaign (or lack thereof) is supposedly egalitarian and horizontal. Marina Kusumawardhani, an Indonesian transplant living in Austria who came back to volunteer for the Jokowi-JK presidential bid, explained that the campaign has no vertical power structure, with Jokowi and his inner circle giving no directives and leaving it up to the grassroots organizers to do what they will, the only condition being that they don’t sink to smear tactics. It’s very anarchistic, and his philosophy on creating greater social change seems much along the lines of Paulo Freire’s thinking (i.e. liberating the masses through self-empowerment). He represents the increasingly popular pool of thinking that supports his campaign: Indonesia is ready to ditch the authoritarian oligarchic control, corruption, wealth inequality, bureaucracy, and skewed political priorities that have plagued the country since the end of the Suharto era, and that the people want to become more actively involved in shaping their reality, rather than waiting and hoping for elites to act. He falls short of calling for workers to collectivize farms and industries, but his message in the context of Indonesian politics is pretty radical none the less.

Jokowi greets a crowd at a Bandung rally

Jokowi greets a crowd at a Bandung rally

On the other side, there is Jokowi’s antithesis: Prabowo—a relic of the dreaded New Order days, whose corrupt and violent history, coupled with his unpredictable temper and routinely hinted authoritarian vision for Indonesia has many people fearful of the prospect of him winning this election.

A Prabowo-Hatta poster

A Prabowo-Hatta poster

He’s the son of one of Suharto’s key economic ministers, was married to one of the president’s daughters, and has a younger brother, Hasim Djojohadikusomo, who eventually became one of the richest businessmen in Indonesia via the lucrative Indonesian mining industry, and allegedly finances Prabowo’s current presidential bid. Prabowo alternately went down the army track, and ended up commanding the notoriously brutal and controversial Kopassus Special Forces unit, which, under his leadership, has been implicated in the abduction and torture of numerous pro-democracy activists at the end of the Suharto era in 1999, as well as encouraging sentiment which lead to the racist anti-Chinese riots and killings in 1997. During a 2001 interview with American Journalist Allan Nairn, Prabowo revealed some less than humane attitudes regarding the atrocities committed by the Indonesian national army in East Timor during its fight for independence. “You don’t massacre civilians in front of the world press! Maybe commanders do it in villages where no one will ever know, but not in a provincial capital,” he was quoted as saying in reference to the massacre of 271 people in the occupied East Timor city of Dili.

Prabowo occasionally reveals his true feelings on Indonesia’s fledgling democracy. He has painted democratic direct elections as “un-Indonesian”, called for “guided democracy” and stated that the only solution for Indonesia’s problems is for the elite to ‘fix’ a weak government. He wants to make changes to the Indonesian constitution which would allow for consolidated presidential power and presidential appointments by the parliament. A recent Jakarta Globe article described his roots in royalty and high-class ancestry, and his strong personal belief in his legitimacy as a leader: “Prabowo is quintessential blue-blood – his ancestry links him to the Javanese aristocracy, Sultan Agung, and Prince Diponegoro, and his own father was a multiple cabinet minister,” the Globe quoted Jeffery Neilson, the Indonesia coordinator of the Sydney Southeast Asia Center at the University of Sydney as saying. “His own rapid rise through the military occurred when he was President Suharto’s son-in-law. He believes he has the right to rule.”

Though frightening, his self-cultivated strongman leader image and nationalist rhetoric of denouncing foreign influence in Indonesia have won him some support, reflected in the polls. My former host family in Bogor, all of whom are voting Prabowo, say he is the stronger leader, and like his classic militaristic attire that he dons for rallies and events. One of the motorcycle taxi drivers that works near my residence said the same thing, as do any people affiliated with the armed forces. I’m sure the military and police forces are relishing a friendly face in the Presidential Palace, fondly reminiscing on the Suharto era of authoritarian control through the muscle of the police and military; and the exclusivity crony capitalism.

The photographer's hustle

The photographer’s hustle

His treatment of the press who lob tough questions is alarming, if not downright terrifying. Rumors are rampant of Prabowo taking the names and pictures of journalists who ask tough questions, a blatant sign of a ‘black-list’ being compiled for future reference. Maragreth told me many stories of having her picture taken by Prabowo campaign reps after asking about the candidate’s dismal human rights record, being followed home at night after work, receiving intimidating letters running along the lines of “cease and desist or we will use any means (including murder) to silence you.” She said that at first, she was afraid, but after so many attempts, they fall on deaf ears. But for her friends in human rights activist circles, she is extremely worried. “If he gets elected many of my activist friends are going to have to leave the country,” Margareth grimly told me at one point. One of Margareth’s particularly gruesome tale was one she heard from a friend within a pro-Jokowi political organization named Laskar Biji Kopi, who found a body hanging from a tree outside of their Jakarta headquarters with the group’s insignia carved all over the corpse, indicating intentional intimidation, though, no evidence directly links the Prabowo camp and the incident.

Jokowi supporter sporting a Laskar Riji Kopi t-shirt

Jokowi supporter sporting a Laskar Biji Kopi t-shirt

If one were to describe Prabowo to me without divulging that he is actually poised to become Indonesia’s president, I would instantly call him an excellent character for a political thriller. If one forgets about his past, he’s almost comical, childlike, a big kid who just wants it all, and believes he deserves it too.  The scary thing is that he’s not an antagonist dreamed up by a writer, he’s real. And he might win. I, along with the rest of the Jakarta Post office, just hope that Jokowi’s popular populism pulls him through by wide margins that can’t be contested by a recount or altered by ‘lost ballots’ or the other various forms of manipulation that Prabowo is rumored to be planning.

I’m writing this very over-simplified summary of Indonesia’s presidential race the night before the nation casts its ballots, technically a time between the end of the official campaign period and voting day when people are to refrain from election related discourse. But it’s the night before the storm, and a few in-office staffers have knocked on wood after talking about a Jokowi victory. Most people, including myself, are pretty jaded with political campaigns that seem to not muster any tangible positive change in the day to day happenings of people’s lives once the candidates are actually elected. But this one is indeed a crucial transition of power. I trust Margareth when she says activists will have to leave the country for their own safety. And while Jokowi probably won’t live up to his promises for radical reform, he certainly stands in liberal contrast to Prabowo, who’s disdain for liberal democracy is blatant.

1 thought on “On the trail with Jokowi: notes and election synopsis

  1. lukashjanssen

    Nice piece, Josh. Informational, passionate, and perceptive. I love your photos – capturing individuals in such candid scenes. Hope you’re doing well over there… and best of luck to Jokowi.


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