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Indonesian governor inspires, but can he deliver?

Thursday - 1/24/2013, 5:06am  ET

In this photo taken on Jan. 3, 2013, Jakarta Gov. Joko Widodo inspects inside a bus at Terminal Senen in Jakarta, Indonesia. Widodo’s trip through his inundated city of 14 million reflected his hands-on approach to leadership, a style that helped him win election in September against an incumbent who was backed by the establishment political parties. His traffic plans include more buses to ply the city’s dedicated lanes, some of which have already arrived, more roads and a scheme that would restrict the amount of cars that travel into the city center each day based on whether their license plate ends in odd or even number. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

CHRIS BRUMMITT
Associated Press

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) -- Cheering crowds greeted the new leader of this Asian megacity as he toured its flooded business district atop a handcart typically used to haul garbage. Men, women and children waded through dirty water to shake his hand, shout greetings and hear his vague promises that their lives will get better.

"Come the dry season, we need to do something real, something concrete," Jakarta Gov. Joko Widodo said last week. "We need a breakthrough, whether that be a massive reservoir or whatever."

It's the kind of populist moment you see from many of the world's big-city mayors, but it's not typical for Indonesia, the largest economy in Southeast Asia. More than 14 years since dictator Suharto was overthrown, its politicians are still mostly drawn from the same stock: wealthy businessmen or former generals running more on connections and money than experience in government.

Enter Widodo, known universally by an affectionate nickname, "Jokowi." He comes from Solo, a smallish city in the middle of Java, and speaks Indonesian with the thick accent of people from those parts. He dresses simply in a white shirt and slacks, resembling one of the office workers who cram into Jakarta's falling-apart buses every day.

Widodo's trip through his inundated city of 14 million reflected his hands-on approach to leadership, a style that helped him win election in September against an incumbent who was backed by the establishment political parties.

The 51-year-old has made several moves aimed at shoring up support among the poor, including a big increase in the minimum wage, but many tough decisions, including those surrounding Jakarta's woeful infrastructure, remain ahead of him. The city is wracked not only by floods, but by corruption, worsening traffic congestion and a widening gap between rich and poor.

"I don't feel under any burden," he said in a 25-minute chat at a street-side coffee shack two weeks before the floods struck. He played to a gallery of photographers who snapped wildly every time he brought a cheap glass of joe to his lips.

"My task is simple," he said. "Just stop the floods and fix the traffic."

Widodo, a former furniture producer, was credited with bringing a new style of governance to Solo when he became mayor there in 2005, even though lasting achievements there are perhaps harder to pin down.

He was supported by the country's main opposition party, but appeared to distance himself from it, saying his alliance was "with the people." Many ordinary Jakartans believed him, as well as progressives and liberals, who helped in a savvy, social media-driven campaign that swept through the city's young, relentlessly online population.

"The old schemes don't necessarily lead to success anymore," said Frank Feulner, a governance specialist with the United Nations who was based in Indonesia for many years. "It's quite a development to see such a clean candidate in such a dynamic city. The fact that the political and commercial epicenter of the country has made this move is an encouragement to everyone else."

Widodo's choice of deputy cemented the idea that this was going to be a different kind of Jakarta administration. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama also began his career outside the city and developed a reputation for being tough when dealing with inefficient and corrupt staff.

One clip, uploaded by Purnama's office to YouTube, shows him angrily ordering public works officials to cut their budget by 25 percent, suggesting they have been marking it up. It has close to 1.5 million hits.

Widodo leaves much of the city's day-to-day administration to Purnama. "I'm the one who goes out and about. He improves the system from inside," he said.

One of Widodo's first acts was raising the minimum wage in the city by a whopping 40 percent to around $230 a month, winning him friends among the unions and those in formal employment, but concerning some economists who fear it will result in layoffs. He is also rolling out a health insurance scheme and free schooling for the poor, though how the city intends to pay for this over the long term is unclear.

His traffic plans include more buses to ply the city's dedicated lanes, some of which have already arrived, more roads and a scheme that would restrict the amount of cars that travel into the city center each day based on whether their license plate ends in odd or even number. He has postponed a plan to build a mass transit rail system like other Asian capitals, worried that ticket prices would be out of reach of the city's poorest.

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