14th General Election (GE14)
Indonesian president-elect Joko Widodo greeting supporters with his three-finger greeting, symbolising the ‘Unity of Indonesia’, the third of Indonesia’s five principles, during a gathering in Jakarta on Wednesday. AP pic

LET’S get two things straight about the president-elect of Indonesia. He is truly smart. Dumb people can get elected with populist appeals to popular prejudices. Then they turn into demagogues or wastrels spilling the nation’s patrimony. The list is too long, but the responsibility for Argentina’s slide from almost inner-tier major economy to a beggar, bankrupt dictatorship can be laid at the door of Juan Peron.

To be from neither military nor wealthy elite and win against a well-oiled campaign of possibly the worst possible old-style candidate took brains. Joko Widodo (better known as Jokowi) may have stumbled in school, working as he did from childhood after school, but he graduated from Gadja Mada, one of the big four of Indonesia’s universities.

The second thing is his record as mayor of Solo and governor of Jakarta. It was deeds not words. He won’t be like Thailand’s General Thaksin Shinawatra, who used demagoguery to win elections and then dictatorial policies to entrench himself in office. Politicians must believe in themselves but great ones believe in the people still more.

A century ago, the founder of modern political science, Max Weber, wrote a game-changing essay entitled the Politics as a Vocation, in which for the first time, we encounter the overused term, charisma.

The charismatic politician is classically one who uses his personal appeal to transform traditional values into modern ones.

For a generation, Africa was plagued by leaders trying to fit the form, but they tended just to be rabble-rousers.

In another category are the traditional, but well-educated leaders, who jump-start modernity, albeit more slowly, by using their royal legitimacy.

Tunku Abdul Rahman is the classic example. His protégé, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, continues the model, but by the time the current prime minister, his son, came to power, the transformation was well underway. Jokowi is the best example of charisma in a half-century.

Before he gave his extraordinary address to the Democratic Convention in 2004, Barack Obama was just a local state legislator. I had the good fortune to have an activist daughter in Chicago who advised me to watch this community organiser carefully.

Not many people, aside from Obama himself and sparse observers like your correspondent believed he would become president in 2009, as I predicted in these pages two years earlier when he declared his presidency.

I’m surprised the comparison with Jokowi isn’t more cited. Mayor of Solo to President in just four years? But it was in rough parallel to Obama’s rise and method. Do what you are good at and do it among the people. Neither had wealth behind him, so they both turned to broad-based fund-raising, which hooked donors into the candidate’s organisation.

Obama innovatively used the internet to drum up millions of dollars, while Hilary in disorganised style relied on tired and over-relied on Clinton loyalists. She never stood a chance. He out-maneuvered her and when she made low digs — like refusing to concede because ‘things could still happen’ — a filthy allusion to the June 1968 assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy — Obama just ignored her; he’d already won.

Critics jabbed that Widodo has no international experience. Nor did George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, and they did okay. I’ll bet you one of the first calls Widodo got was from an Indonesian-speaking American who grew up in Jakarta, and with no doubt the American issued an invitation to make an early visit to the White House. I’d love to have monitored that call.

Indonesia’s large place entitles the country to a lot of attention. It’s big enough that foreign leaders and investors will come to visit the new president, especially if he unclogs the foreign investment pipeline; and does for Indonesia what he’s done for Jakarta. The biggest — and hardest — step will be to show little mercy for corruption. He won’t have time to roam the villages, except symbolically. But in all countries there’s a tendency to follow a strong leader's step.

The Indonesian presidency is a strong institution, and it will take a few years to learn the ropes. But I doubt many Indonesians are in doubt that the ‘old ways’ have to give way. The most important thing Widodo can do in the early days is to show tough love, or even a rough hand, where his lead isn’t taken seriously.

One of the earliest acts of President Reagan was to fire all striking air controllers. It was a domestic act, but I happen to know that in every serious chancellery world-wide the reaction was: this guy is tough and we’d better not test his seriousness. Most importantly, Russia’s new leader got the message. Suddenly America rode high, for the first time in a decade.

If Widodo gets some of the worst corrupters thrown in jail, it will tell the world that he means business, and isn’t just a crowd pleasing populist. He’s no Joke. Prepare for ten extraordinary years.

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