Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, an untested outsider to Indonesian politics, has attracted an unexpected national following in this fledgling democracy amid a void of young leaders

May 16, 2013, 1:32 p.m. ET

With Little to Show, Jakarta Governor Attracts Following


JAKARTA, Indonesia—An untested outsider to Indonesian politics has attracted an unexpected national following in this fledgling democracy amid a void of young leaders.

Joko Widodo, the 51-year-old governor of Jakarta, is taking on the major challenges of the capital—flooding, poverty and traffic—and though evidence is scant so far that he can fix the problems, he has attracted intensive media coverage and is even mentioned as a strong presidential contender in 2014, when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is due to step down after a decade in power.Mr. Widodo assumed Jakarta’s top leadership post in October, riding on a populist platform of programs primarily aimed at the poor. He crafts an Everyman image, wearing inexpensive clothes and taking walking tours of Jakarta’s poorest neighborhoods. On one such walk in South Jakarta after major flooding this year, women shrieked as he strode by and children trailed after him.

In an interview at his government office, the soft-spoken Mr. Widodo described himself and his policies as “simple.” From behind a desk topped with old diagrams of a reclamation plan for Jakarta Bay, one of the city’s many giant infrastructure plans he hopes to resurrect, he said his first goal was “to build the people’s trust. After that, we build the system.”

Mr. Widodo arrived in Jakarta, a city of more than 10 million people that is famously difficult to run, with some governing experience as a popular mayor in Central Java. There are signs his new undertaking is proving more complex than hoped, but Mr. Widodo said he expected that steps to put his plans in place would be accompanied by growing pains.

One of his first moves upon assuming office was to make health care free to the city’s poor. The move filled hospitals to the brim, leaving doctors overworked and patients lining up outside before dawn.

Some of his plans simply aren’t happening yet. Since early January, Mr. Widodo has suggested the traffic-plagued city was just days away from announcing a deal to build a long-awaited monorail. A decades-old plan to build a state-of-the-art urban railway appears to moving forward, but skepticism has grown in the absence of a groundbreaking.

He has said a proposal to build a major flood tunnel would attract investors; it hasn’t. And a system to limit the number of cars going into Jakarta has been postponed to the end of the year.

Criticism has been quiet in the early going, but it is growing. “He has empathy, he has sympathy, and the people can really feel it,” says Todung Mulya Lubis, a lawyer and well-known political commentator. “But the question is, where’s the beef? If you listen to him speak, you don’t feel he has anything. The strategy, I don’t see it.”

Mr. Widodo has said he would like to move more quickly, but that mega projects require lengthy discussion with city legislators and multiple ministries. He says plans are moving forward. On Thursday, he asked companies behind the monorail to reach an agreement next week on compensation for past work, for years a major stumbling block in advancing the project.

President Yudhoyono has seen his popularity fall after a string of graft cases hitting his party. Mr. Widodo, a heavy-metal music fan, has sounded a chord among a jaded electorate and young voters, who are expected to make up almost half of those who cast ballots in 2014.

Mr. Widodo’s popularity may prove fleeting, especially as television coverage of him, which was very high during Jakarta flooding a couple of months ago, diminishes.

While many of the common-touch qualities used to describe Mr. Widodo are the same as those cited by early supporters of Mr. Yudhoyono a decade ago, his signature habit of making unannounced forays into the neighborhoods of Jakarta is all but unheard of among the nation’s political elite. “Most officials here are untouchable,” said Wijayanto Samirin, vice rector of Paramadina University in Jakarta.

Only one candidate has officially announced his intention to run for president in the 2014 elections: Aburizal Bakrie, the patron of the Bakrie Group BNBR.JK 0.00%conglomerate and chairman of the nation’s largest party, Golkar. No figure has emerged in Mr. Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party, the largest in the nation’s House of Representatives.

Another likely contender is former Gen. Prabowo Subianto, front-runner candidate in many other polls and a figure instrumental in bringing Mr. Widodo to Jakarta.

Analysts say it is possible a party other than his own could court Mr. Widodo, who has played down talk of a potential candidacy and said he wants to finish his term in Jakarta.

Businessman Hashim Djojohadikusumo, a brother of Mr. Prabowo whose wealth backs his political ambitions, didn’t rule out a slate including Mr. Widodo and Mr. Prabowo. “It could be,” Mr. Hashim said in a recent interview.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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