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Thomas Pepinsky is Tisch University Professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is the author, most recently, of “Migrants, Minorities, and Populism in Southeast Asia” (Pacific Affairs, 2020).
Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s seventh president, captured international headlines when he was elected in 2014. This unassuming furniture-maker-turned-mayor from a regional city in Central Java had reached the highest political office in Indonesia, winding his way from mayor of Surakarta (Solo) to governor of Jakarta to president. It was—and still is—the unlikeliest of stories. Jokowi—as he is universally known—had seemingly bested the country’s seasoned political elites on a campaign of results-oriented and effective governance, pragmatism, and hard work.
The new book Man of Contradictions: Joko Widodo and the Struggle to Remake Indonesia, by Ben Bland of the Lowy Institute, is the first book-length English biography of Jokowi. It is a “political biography,” in Bland’s own description. For those without any background in Indonesia, it is an accessible introduction to the country’s most well-known and powerful politician. For those well-versed in Indonesian politics, it offers a thorough overview of Jokowi’s rise to power and record (to date) as president, with an argument about how we foreign observers ought to think about both the man and the country that he rules.
Bland brings to bear a wealth of personal experience covering Indonesian politics over the past decade. As a Financial Times correspondent, he first came to know Jokowi during the exciting 2012 gubernatorial election in Jakarta, a race that confirmed that Jokowi was a politician who had reached a national stage. Bland has interviewed Jokowi on numerous occasions, and sprinkles his text with personal anecdotes that colorfully illustrate important points.
In the context of Jokowi’s popularity both in Indonesia and in among foreign commentators, and especially relative to the excitement surrounding the 2014 election, Bland’s biography stands out in its critical evaluation of Jokowi. He portrays Jokowi’s presidency as troubled, and his record in office as mixed, and devotes particular attention to the weaknesses of the infrastructure projects which Jokowi has always considered the centerpiece of his presidency. Compared even to most academic treatments of Jokowi’s first term in office, which highlighted the precarity of Indonesian liberalism and identified Jokowi’s actions in office as contributing to Indonesia’s democratic backsliding while mostly ignoring the problems with Jokowi’s pet infrastructure projects, this is a critical evaluation.
As a political biography, the book must situate Jokowi the political figure within the broader contours of Indonesian politics. Bland keeps the primary focus on Jokowi the man, an effective choice, although one bound to disappoint readers who want this book to be first and foremost about Indonesian politics. He takes us on a journey through Jokowi’s early life in Solo, a mid-sized city in the Javanese heartland where Jokowi was born and raised and became a successful furniture maker. We learn of his modest background, which gives him a natural connection with “the people” that resonates widely in Indonesian politics, and which distinguishes him from other national politicians—Megawati Sukarnoputri, Prabowo Subianto, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and many others—who come from well-known political families, from the highest ranks of the military, or from elite business, religious, or media backgrounds.
We learn as well of Jokowi’s record as mayor of Solo. He was elected in 2005, just as Indonesian democratization and decentralization reforms had first allowed for direct elections of local leaders. At the time, foreign observers of Indonesian politics (myself included) commonly remarked that Jokowi embodied the new type of politician who could emerge under a more decentralized form of Indonesian democracy. His hands-on style, introducing the concept of blusukan (impromptu visits to check on the efforts of local administrators or to see local conditions around the city first-hand), gave him a reputation for results-oriented management, and for working incrementally to improve governance. His soft-spoken Javanese manner further made him an endearing figure. This image of Jokowi as a modest but effective leader contrasted with the other establishment politicians who campaigned with flashier styles, or by drawing on their family names, military records, or business experiences.
Governance, in this understanding, is a problem of administration and management. If you work hard to figure out what the problems are in local government, then you can discover efficiencies. If you make sure that everyone knows that their boss might show up and check their work, then they will act accordingly, working harder in their posts. If their boss truly understands what it’s like to live in an informal urban settlement, or to try to write a contract with a foreign buyer, then he will have a knack for understanding what sorts of solutions might work for these problems.
Jokowi did not invent this hands-on and extremely local approach to politics, but he certainly embodied it as mayor of Solo and then governor of Jakarta. It resonated with many technocrats who tired of corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency, and also with liberal democrats and progressives who saw in Jokowi a refreshing and truly genuine alternative to generals, tycoons, and the offspring of former dictators. This approach also resonated well with Indonesian voters, giving Jokowi an electoral boost among many small business owners and others eager to see cleaner and more effective government.
Jokowi had an impressive but brief run as Jakarta governor after his defeat of the (initially heavily-favored) incumbent Fauzi Bowo. The blusukan continued, and Jakartans saw tangible changes in how their city was governed, but Jokowi had his sights set on higher office. By 2014, he was running for president with the tentative support of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), a party whose lineage includes the nationalist and social democratic currents in Indonesian politics but is centered around former President Sukarno’s daughter and grand-daughter, Megawati Sukarnoputri and Puan Maharani, each of whom harbored their own ambitions for the presidency (Megawati had held the office herself in the early 2000s). Jokowi outmaneuvered them, and went on in the presidential election to defeat Prabowo Subianto, Suharto’s former son-in-law, a disgraced former general with a stained human rights record and a demonstrated willingness to court political support from hardline Islamists.
This was a landmark result. Prabowo’s authoritarian tendencies and embrace of Islamists frightened many Indonesians and distressed foreign commentators. He had the advantages of name recognition, an elite family, a record of military service, and a billionaire brother who helped bankroll the Prabowo campaign. Jokowi’s victory in 2014 showed that a different kind of politician could defeat all of those advantages by playing to the public’s interests in good and effective governance. The result was portrayed, by academics and in the local and international media, as a victory not just for Jokowi but for democracy itself against what seemed to be a plainly authoritarian challenge.
Although Bland demurs on whether Jokowi should be considered a populist, the best analysts of Indonesian politics have identified the populist strain in Jokowi’s style and discourse. Jokowi utilizes a soft and managerial type of populism rather than the harsh penal populism of Rodrigo Duterte, the military bravado of Jair Bolsonaro, or the exclusionary anti-immigrant populism of Marine Le Pen. As newly elected president, Jokowi continued to push the line of what Marcus Mietzner has termed “technocratic populism.” More blusukan (now with an airplane), a presidential cabinet titled simply “Working Cabinet” (previous democratic cabinets had been given names evoking loftier ideals such as national unity and consensus), and an emphasis on infrastructure.
But Jokowi’s record as president has been much more mixed than his records as mayor of Solo and governor of Jakarta. Explaining why this is, Bland focuses on Jokowi’s own governing style. In sharp contrast to Jokowi the modest and effective mayor, Bland describes Jokowi the president as self-assured and perhaps even blind to the limits of his own abilities: imperious within his cabinet, with a “cocksure confidence” that leads him to prioritize flashy infrastructure projects rather than well-planned ones. The results-oriented managerialism of Jokowi the mayor has been replaced by short-sightedness, with a marked lack of attention to the planning and detail that delivers sustainable improvements in the popular welfare, and which is critical in such a populous and geographically large country. This is a more critical interpretation of Jokowi’s development record in office than one usually encounters in coverage of the Indonesian president, because Bland focuses not just on successful outcomes, but also on the policy process itself, and the failed cases that tend to receive little attention in the English- or Indonesian-language media. This is a useful corrective to most journalistic treatments of Jokowi’s infrastructure record.
Bland reserves his most serious critiques for his assessments of Jokowi’s management of two major policy problems: the chronic challenge of managing Jakarta’s massive urban growth, and the acute problem of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Jokowi’s plan to address urban growth by moving Indonesia’s capital to eastern Borneo (an old plan in Indonesian politics, but one usually taken not very seriously) is portrayed as ill-considered and unrealistic. And Indonesia’s response to COVID-19—which has proven a serious policy challenge across the world—was particularly ineffective under Jokowi. The administration’s response was slow, self-contradictory, and fundamentally unrealistic, with major administration figures issuing statements about the saving power of prayer and Jokowi himself seeming afraid to take decisive but unpopular steps to combat the pandemic. Although many forget this today, for a time in the crucial early days of the pandemic, Indonesian officials insisted that the country had precisely zero cases.
Jokowi’s response to COVID-19 has taken some of the sheen off of his administration among foreign observers. Bland’s treatment of his COVID-19 response, however, implies that closer attention to the nature of governance and policymaking under Jokowi would have revealed all of these pathologies well in advance. Yes, Jokowi has always highlighted his record of pragmatism and results: those earned him national attention as the mayor of a medium-sized city, and were the bases of his campaign for Jakarta governor, the promise of his first presidential bid, and the foundation of his reelection. But in Bland’s telling, the further Jokowi got from Solo, the less pragmatic he became, and the more uneven his results.
These critiques of Jokowi’s record as an administrator are a prelude to an even more serious indictment by Bland of Jokowi’s democratic record. There is no doubt that maintaining Indonesian democracy is tough. Jokowi became president of a consolidated but flawed democracy marked by rampant corruption, a hardening religious cleavage, and a lack of party politics organized around any ideology at all. Any well-meaning democrat would struggle to achieve effective reform under these conditions.
Jokowi stepped into national politics with great promise as an outsider, unbeholden (in the common understanding) to the country’s elite establishment. Still, Bland writes, “he was revealed as a man with good political instincts and high electability, but no plan for how to manage the ranks of oleaginous politicos, tycoons, and generals that lined up around him.” There is a certain irony in the fact that the country’s most powerful politician is surrounded by elites who have proven impossible for him to manage. But there is a strategic logic to it: absent the deep-rooted familial, business, or military connections that a different president would have relied on, Jokowi needed a broad coalition in order to neutralize potential opponents.
The problem is that in bringing together a broad coalition, by including such a wide range of elites in his cabinet and building such a large coalition in parliament, Jokowi sacrificed the ability to press for meaningful democratic reforms. His reliance on military figures in his cabinet and his willingness to use the arms of the state to suppress free expression reveal the fragility of Indonesian democracy. And this is disappointing, relative to the expectations of liberals and progressives. No one would be surprised if someone like Prabowo had used an information technology law against his critics, but it is dismaying that Jokowi has allowed his government to do the same. Bland provocatively brings the point home by drawing parallels between Jokowi—a results-oriented, pragmatic, culturally Javanese president—and Suharto, another pragmatic, developmentalist, culturally Javanese president who ruled Indonesia for thirty-two years.
Near the end of the book, Bland turns to Indonesian foreign policy. And once again Jokowi’s inconsistent and instinctual style emerges. Writing from an Australian perspective, Bland briefly details Jokowi’s approach (such as it is) to Indonesian grand strategy. Jokowi can be personable and disarming, but he does not press very hard for a coherent foreign policy. Bland draws a distinction between Jokowi’s “free and active” approach to foreign policy and his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s “thousand friends and zero enemies” approach; yet, I find both of these to be mostly vacuous.
Bland’s overall argument about Jokowi is contained in the book’s title: Jokowi is a man of contradictions. In the conclusion, Bland expands on this point, reflecting on why “we”—foreign observers—continue to “get Indonesia wrong.” Setting aside the broader point about how foreign observers fare in understanding Indonesia writ large—the book, really, isn’t about that—the book does highlight some notable contrasts. Jokowi can seem at times modest, and at other times supremely confident. He is an outsider, yet he bested the insiders and then became beholden to them in his policymaking. He speaks about infrastructure and getting things done, yet he completely whiffed on COVID-19. He is a democrat who allows his government to pursue illiberal, anti-democratic measures against opponents.
In my read, though, Bland has given us all the material we need to draw a simpler conclusion, one that does not rely on Jokowi’s enigmatic character or on broader questions of whether or not foreigners need to have a “single, overarching theoretical framework” of Indonesia. Jokowi is a skilled electoral politician who cares about Indonesia and diagnoses—correctly—just how much infrastructural development the country needs. But being the president of Indonesia is not like being the mayor of Solo. What were good instincts based on first-hand experience with city politics could never be replicated across a country this large with governance problems this complex. So, his instincts now often fail him.
What’s more, as mayor and governor, Jokowi’s task was to achieve results within the context of a democratic system that he was not able to control on a national level. There was no need for him to display any sort of meaningful commitment to democracy or liberalism because, on a national level, that was not up to him. As president, the very nature of Indonesian democracy depends in no small part on his choices. And we have learned over the past six years that pragmatic choices for Jokowi the man are not always the best choices for Indonesian democracy.