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In Indonesia, a Governor at Home on the Streets

Governor Joko Widodo smiles as he gives his remarks in a press conference in Jakarta.
Adek Berry | AFP | GettyImages
Governor Joko Widodo smiles as he gives his remarks in a press conference in Jakarta.

Each day, Joko Widodo, the governor of Jakarta, does something practically unheard-of among Indonesia's political elite: he ventures into the streets to speak with the people who elected him.

Most times, he is mobbed as he wanders through slums, traditional markets and other neighborhoods. Women, and men, try to touch him. Younger people grab his hands and lay them on their foreheads — a sign of respect. Many share their concerns over how their city is working (or not), a practice he encourages.

The people, he jokes, are not so much excited to see him; they are merely "shocked to see an Indonesian leader out of their office."

"The people say it's 'street democracy' because I go out to them," said Mr. Joko, 52, whose supporters affectionately call him by his nickname, Jokowi. "I explain my programs. They can also give me ideas about programs." He also drops in on local government and tax offices to let the city's notoriously inefficient bureaucrats know he is watching.

That daily routine is one of the main reasons Mr. Joko, a reed-thin former furniture dealer, has almost overnight shot to the top of the polls about possible candidates for next year's presidential election. In late August, the country's most influential daily newspaper, Kompas, displayed his photo on its front page three days in a row along with poll results showing him with nearly double the support of the closest challenger, a retired Army general. The poll also found he had swept past the leader of his own party: former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, a famously imperious leader who sometimes referred to her supporters as "little people."

(Read more: Presidency beckons for Jakarta's rags-to-riches governor)

"He's the opposite of the leaders we have now. He doesn't fit the mold at all," said Bhimanto Suwastoyo, chief editor of the online Jakarta Globe. "The mold is: an Indonesian official does what he wants, has no connection with the people and doesn't consult — he rules. Jokowi is doing the exact opposite. He's hands on, he asks the public what they want, he approaches them and he's seen as actually doing something."

What Mr. Joko has accomplished in his first year leading the capital is not high-profile. In fact, people give him at least as much credit for what he appears not to have done. In a country rife with corruption, Mr. Joko is widely considered a clean politician who has not used his office to enrich himself, and who is working hard to cut down on corruption within the government.

The issue of official corruption is expected to be a major factor in the election, the third direct presidential election since the country threw off autocratic rule 15 years ago.

The economy has been doing well — it survived the world's 2008 financial crisis virtually untouched, multinationals have been flocking here and its gross domestic product has expanded at a steady rate of more than 6 percent for the last three years. Still, analysts consistently say Indonesia is being held back from reaching its full potential because of corruption and collusion among government officials, lawmakers and powerful business interests.

The current president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, swept into power in 2004 and was re-elected in 2009 on an anticorruption platform, but his governing Democratic Party has been mired in corruption scandals the past two years.

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With months to go before the election, anything can happen to derail Mr. Joko's chances. The retired general who ran second in the Kompas poll, Prabowo Subianto, has a strong following among the poor and has been considered a top contender for the presidency, despite widespread allegations of human rights abuses in East Timor. (Mr. Prabowo and Mr. Joko are members of opposition parties; Mr. Yudhoyono cannot run again because of term limits.)

Since becoming governor last October, Mr. Joko has followed through on his campaign promises, including issuing welfare payments on the equivalent of electronic gift cards that allow people to pay for health care and education supplies directly and ensure government officials do not take a cut off the top. He also instituted an online tax payment system to prevent graft and jump-started long-delayed plans for a mass rapid transit system for the capital.

He has invested the most effort and political capital on two projects in particular. The first was to move street vendors off the roads surrounding Tanah Abang, the largest textiles market in Southeast Asia, who were causing traffic jams throughout Central Jakarta, and give them space inside a nearby building. The second is the relocation of 7,000 poor families squatting around the Pluit Reservoir in North Jakarta into lost-cost public housing so the reservoir can be dredged for the first time in 30 years to help alleviate annual flooding.

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These projects might seem obscure given the many pressing problems of a city of 10 million people, but they address the two most important ones for average people: traffic and flooding. To win community support, Mr. Joko visits both areas at least once daily to make sure that city officials are following through on the projects and to assure local residents that he is not really planning to turn the land over to shopping mall developers.

Mr. Joko's "man of the people" tag is not concocted, analysts say. He is a former carpenter and ran a small furniture export business near Surakarta, a city of 520,000 people also known as Solo, before running for city mayor in 2005.

In 2012 he ran for governor in Jakarta, and his landslide win against the incumbent, Fauzi Bowo, who was backed by most of Mr. Yudhoyono's governing coalition, was viewed as an emphatic rejection of the political establishment.

Mr. Joko ultimately will not decide whether he will run in the presidential election. Mrs. Megawati firmly controls the party, which decided at a recent congress that she alone would name its presidential nominee. She had been expected to run herself, but analysts say it is increasingly likely she will step aside for Mr. Joko to help her party try to regain the presidency after 10 years.

Party officials say Mrs. Megawati has hinted in recent weeks as much in recent weeks, calling herself at 66 "old" and "a grandmother." Mrs. Megawati and Mr. Joko have also appeared side by side at party events in recent weeks, prompting even more speculation about his candidacy.

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