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Just before 10.00 the presidential plane touches down in Labuan Bajo on the island of Flores, eastern Indonesia. Staff and security pour out of the red-and-white liveried 737 before President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo appears on the steps. His welcome party sports a sea of medals and spotless uniforms – this is a military operation rather than a signature Widodo walkabout and the perimeter around him has become tighter since the assassination of Shinzo Abe in Japan. Tighter by Widodo’s standards, at least: mobbed in the terminal, he poses for pictures and makes his way to the first stop on his two-day itinerary. “Tourism is key to bringing prosperity,” he says in a speech to open an airport extension, during which he bangs a ceremonial drum.

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President Widodo touches down in Labuan Bajo

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Red carpet
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Widodo at the helm

With its hilly terrain, dry climate and Catholic inhabitants, this small fishing town could pass for Cyprus. Most tourists come here to dive, island-hop or visit the nearby Komodo National Park. Widodo has come to build. The 61-year-old, who has visited 19 times since becoming president in 2014, has an ambitious plan to diversify the country’s underdeveloped tourism industry by creating “10 new Balis”. About 17 million international tourists visited Indonesia before the pandemic, an underwhelming figure compared to Thailand, which boasted closer to 40 million. Widodo speaks about Labuan Bajo with the pride of a local mayor and it was his first choice for hosting the g20 summit in November before the venue switched to Bali. 


“When we calculated the number of hotel rooms here, we realised that it was not enough,” he says with a deep laugh. “If we can keep improving and attracting investment, we can be number one in Indonesia.”

Sailing boats dot the harbour and the presidential party has commandeered a pinisi schooner for a trip to see komodo dragons. Standing on the deck of the traditional vessel, Widodo surveys the improvement works and points monocle towards the new marina, which was once an uninviting point of entry for tourists. “That used to be a slum,” he says, clearly happy with how money has been spent there. Moving the seaport to a new site transformed the town centre and prepared it for the return of global tourism, if not the world’s top 20 leaders, this time. “By next year we will have enough runway to invite direct flights from Dubai, Singapore, South Korea, China and Japan,” he says. As the sun shines over Labuan Bajo, there is no better place to witness the Jokowi effect up close.

“It’s not easy to manage this country. We have 278 million people and more than 17,000 islands. All of these islands need infrastructure”

Widodo was re-elected for a second term in 2019. Voters handed him a larger mandate and he promised them that Indonesia would become one of the world’s five largest economies by 2045 – 100 years after the former Dutch colony won independence. The president’s plan begins with infrastructure and he has continued the frenetic construction of his first term. This year alone, his administration has commenced work on a new capital city in East Kalimantan province and it will start testing the country’s first high-speed railway. Two giant toll roads in Java and Sumatra would also have been completed had it not been for the pandemic. “It’s not easy to manage this country,” he says. “We have 278 million people and more than 17,000 islands. All of these islands need infrastructure.”

As fond as Widodo is of hard hats and high-vis vests, the former furniture manufacturer knows how to build projects with a purpose. Having more airports, he has suggested, makes it easier to land foreign money, while improved roads mean that it’s cheaper for Indonesian producers to export their goods at competitive prices. A national dam-building programme is shoring up water supplies for agriculture so that the nation can be better equipped to feed itself. Rice imports stopped three years ago. As other leaders worry about food security, Widodo expects to start exporting the staple grain by next year. He rattles off a list of numbers (another of his passions), all of which suggest that his investments are nudging the country in the right direction. Growth is humming along at a healthy 5 per cent, while inflation appears under control. Poverty is down, human development indicators such as longevity and earnings are up. “He has made the Indonesian people more comfortable,” says Firman Noor, senior political analyst at the National Research and Innovation Agency. “Everyone can enjoy the development.”

The idea of spreading opportunities around Indonesia is textbook Widodo and is one of the main reasons why he is pushing ahead with building the new capital, Nusantara, in the middle of the vast archipelago. Java dominates Indonesia politically, economically and culturally. The island is home to the current capital, Jakarta, and more than 150 million people. Almost every president has been Javanese, including Widodo, who started his political career as mayor of Surakarta (also called Solo) in 2005, before going on to become Jakarta’s governor in 2012. Whether or not the next president (elections are slated for 2024) continues or cuts the Nusantara project, the incumbent’s other initiatives have plenty of momentum. “Foreign investment outside Java reached 127.5trn rupiah [€8.4bn] last year,” says Widodo. “That’s 52.7 per cent of the total, so it’s now higher outside Java.”

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Cruising with his cabinet

Widodo’s political philosophy prioritises greater prosperity for all in the belief that social ills will improve as a side effect. “He is a populist but not like Donald Trump,” says Philips J Vermonte, head of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Jakarta-based think-tank. “A huge amount of social and economic subsidies have been put in place during his term but at the same time he is pushing for investment from private companies.” Critics have attacked the president’s approach to development and his single-minded focus on infrastructure but he insists that the average voter is better off and is quick to qualify that with statistics. Indonesians now also have universal healthcare, better access to scholarships for overseas study and a sovereign wealth fund. Support for the president hovers at about 70 per cent, an astonishing figure in one of Southeast Asia’s most robust democracies.

monocle asks the president what the people want now. “In 2014 they asked for corruption to be dealt with but in the past two or three years they have asked for employment, so we need investment,” he says. Ever eager to please, he is using the natural resources at his country’s disposal to tempt foreign manufacturers and reel in better-paying jobs. A ban on exports of nickel ore two years ago has resulted in overseas refineries being set up in Indonesia. According to Widodo, the country’s nickel industry is now worth $20bn (€19.5bn) a year, a 15-fold increase on its value when he took office. “Starting in 2022 we will stop bauxite exports so we can produce aluminium here,” he says. “In 2024 we will stop copper exports,” he says. The goal is to become a major production hub for electric vehicles and the strategy is gaining traction. Hyundai opened the country’s first such manufacturing plant this year and the president has been visiting car-makers such as Volkswagen, Toyota and Tesla. “I’m sure that we will be the biggest in the world because Indonesia has the biggest potential for nickel and the best quality,” he says.

The “omnibus law on job creation” is the carrot to this stick. Passed in 2020, it snipped red tape to make investing in Indonesia much easier, from getting a business licence to acquiring land for development. Almost 80 sets of regulation were consolidated into one in what is widely considered a legislative masterstroke, despite some concerns raised by the courts. What’s Widodo’s message for foreign investors? “Indonesia has already changed,” he says.

Jokowi on...

Chinese investment “Having good relations with China is very important but we are open to all countries. A lot of investors want to be involved in building our new capital city, Nusantara: the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, China. Russia wants to invest in trains – that’s something that came directly from Vladimir Putin.”

The new capital “The original idea came from the first president of Indonesia, Sukarno. The location might be different now but I am only implementing it.”

Political opposition “Opposition is very important but even if there isn’t any, there are still the media and social media. People in Indonesia are opinionated and their comments can be very hard. They bully the politicians.”

Radical Islam “It’s getting better. According to our surveys, about 50 per cent of radicals are back to being moderate but the other 50 per cent of them are still hardliners. Education is the most important thing: informing people about the importance of unity and diversity.”

Boosting tourism “Infrastructure is crucial and so are facilities. Once these are ready we need to come up with events. We have a lot of culture in Indonesia.”

Attracting foreign investors “They need software engineers so they always ask me about human resources. I tell them that many Indonesian students study in the US and the UK. After we have built the infrastructure, developing our human resources is a priority.”

It takes two hours to sail from Labuan Bajo to Rinca in the Komodo National Park. There’s a jovial mood on deck that is far removed from the rough-and-tumble of Jakarta, where political manoeuvring is under way ahead of the next national election. Several ministers have come along and this mini-cabinet sits together, enjoying the sea breeze while cracking jokes. Widodo looks equally at ease. Eight years in office have added faint lines to his face but it’s not hard to imagine him diving off the boat into the sea; Indonesia’s seventh president since independence grew up in a humble house by a river and swam every day.

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Presidential car

Widodo’s election in 2014 signalled a shift in Indonesian politics. He was the first leader to come from outside the ruling elite or military. “Jokowi changed how we view the presidency and showed us that it’s possible to be a leader without a political party,” says Vermonte. This part of his legacy is secure. Yet there’s a growing disappointment that he has not done more to disrupt a system in which the main political parties are vehicles for former presidents, tycoons and rich families to exert power. Analysts have called it an oligarchy government; under Widodo’s tenure the flaws in Indonesia’s democracy have at times looked stark. Some have even drawn comparisons with the Suharto era, between the late 1960s and 1998. Indonesia’s authoritarian leader was toppled by protests after 31 years, paving the way for democracy. “Jokowi enjoys power,” says Noor, who cites democratic stagnation as the president’s biggest black mark. “He can do anything now, including developing democracy, but there’s no interest.”

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View of the bustling Labuan Bajo port

Unlike, say, Emmanuel Macron, who created an independent party before taking the Élysée Palace, Widodo was picked to be the candidate of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (pdi-p). It was founded and chaired by Megawati Sukarnoputri, a former president and daughter of the founder of modern Indonesia, Sukarno, leader of the struggle against Dutch colonialists. Under Sukarnoputri’s patronage, Widodo has assembled a coalition consisting of seven out of nine parties. “A strong coalition is required to support effective policies and implementation and to address global disruption,” says Widodo. His government enjoys 84 per cent of parliamentary support and little political opposition; the new capital, Nusantara, won the backing of almost every party. For him this is a realisation of Pancasila – Indonesia’s five founding principles – one of which calls for a democracy guided by consensus among elected representatives. What does he see as the biggest danger to democracy? “Hardliners and Islamists,” he says. That’s a quieter cohort nowadays, having been snuffed out or brought into Widodo’s big tent.

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Concert held in Widodo’s honour

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In Komodo National Park

Coalition-building is not new in Indonesia. Widodo is just better at it – a testament, perhaps, to his pragmatism and outsider status. “Jokowi is doing what you do in Indonesia and he’s a very acceptable president for the elite,” says Max Lane, a visiting senior fellow at Singapore’s iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute. “He’s no threat because he doesn’t represent any party and the word ‘dynasty’ for the Jokowi family is ridiculous.” Lane calls Indonesia a country of no contrasts: a liberal democracy with a free media but no political opposition. “The reason why there is no political opposition is not that opposition is suppressed or that opposition is prevented in any way; there just isn’t any,” he says. “There are civil society groups that criticise policies but there is no one putting themselves forward as an alternative government.”

Lines of succession

With the next presidential election due in February 2024, Jakarta is full of talk about who will succeed Widodo. Here are the runners and riders.

Ganjar Pranowo Governor of Central Java
An early favourite of the people, Pranowo must convince his party to give him the nod. Widodo is thought to favour him but his fate is in the hands of pdi-p leader Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Prabowo Subianto
Defence minister
Subianto is hoping that it’ll be third time lucky after losing to Widodo in the past two presidential elections. The ex-army general surprised many by joining Widodo’s cabinet in 2019. He polls well and has the support of his political party.

Anies Baswedan
Governor of Jakarta
Baswedan’s stint at city hall comes to an end in October, freeing him to focus on the election but depriving him of a high-profile platform. Many moderate voters remember how he won the gubernatorial election in 2017 by riling up religious hardliners.

Puan Maharani
Parliamentary speaker
Though a non-starter with most voters, Maharani has a big advantage: she is ex-president Megawati Sukarnoputri’s youngest child and is relying on her mother picking family over Pranowo.

Sandiaga Uno
Minister of tourism and the creative economy
One of Indonesia’s richest men, Uno is a dark horse. He entered politics as Baswedan’s vice-governor in Jakarta, before becoming Subianto’s running mate and joining the Widodo cabinet. His current role has given the media-savvy businessman a following.

The danger with unanimity is that legislation can be rushed through without sufficient scrutiny and politicians hold hands instead of holding each other to account. This risk became a reality in 2019 when all nine parties in parliament passed a law to clip the wings of the much-feared, highly respected anti-corruption agency Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (kpk). When Widodo signed the bill into law his supporters looked on with horror and student protesters thronged the streets. To his credit, Widodo continues to seem as clean as his crisp, white shirts, a fact that only makes his actions more baffling. Onboard the ship to Komodo his eyes fix into a steely stare. After three years the topic of the kpk law still stings. “This initiative was totally from parliament and the nine parties were 100 per cent agreed,” he says. “My government negotiated with them but it was very tough. This is politics.”

In 2021 an even more troubling idea emerged: to try to extend the president’s pandemic-affected tenure in office, either by postponing the next election or amending the constitution to remove the limit of two five-year terms. When the proposal, which came from Widodo’s circle, was tested publicly, protests broke out and it was put back in a box after several national surveys revealed huge opposition to the move. “Wherever this idea came from, Jokowi knows the people and he let it happen,” says Noor. “If he was a true democrat, he would have shut it down. The most important lesson that we learned from the Suharto era was to limit power, not to extend it.”

“We are trying to maintain the integrity of the G20 amid sharp polarisation and make sure that it continues to be part of the solution to the global crisis”

Quizzed on the topic countless times, the president’s circumlocutions never put the matter of his intentions to bed. “The constitution allows only two terms,” he says, making a “V” shape with his fingers. “We have 84 per cent in parliament but the constitution only says two terms.” At a time when regional democracy is in retreat, Widodo should be leading by example. Straight talk on this topic would bolster his international reputation, even if domestically his popularity remains sky high. Well-educated Jakartans were appalled by the prospect of constitutional reform but, despite this, most would still vote for him.

All across Indonesia, from the national monument in Jakarta to the harbour in Labuan Bajo, red-and-white g20 banners hang from trees and lampposts bearing the next summit’s official message: “Recover together, recover stronger”. November’s event is a national effort. Until Russia invaded Ukraine, half of the bloc sanctioned Moscow and commodity prices skyrocketed, the summit in Bali was meant to offer a shop window for a much-transformed Indonesia. “The g20 has become more complex,” says Widodo, who would much rather focus on the global economy than geopolitics. “We are trying to maintain the integrity of the g20 amid sharp polarisation and make sure it continues to be part of the solution to the global crisis,” he says.

Indonesia has stayed on the sidelines of the war, sticking to its founding policy of non-alignment. By inviting Volodymyr Zelensky and resisting Western pressure to exclude Vladimir Putin, Widodo is trying to be a friend to all and make room for consensus. Unlike his efforts in parliament, the stage could be set for a diplomatic disaster. That, or Bali could be the best shot that the world has of agreeing to a common path out of the political quagmire. Neutral Indonesia, after all, is in nobody’s pocket and few can build a consensus like its president. Widodo has been visiting the leaders of every g20 nation this year, sandwiching monocle’s interview between trips to Putin in Moscow and an audience with Xi Jinping in Beijing. He describes these as opportunities to listen to what each country wants – a global version of his blusukan walkabouts, taking in Indonesia’s many islands, languages, cultures and ethnicities. A job as UN secretary-general could one day be in the offing if he can tear himself away from his beloved country.

The sun has set on Labuan Bajo and Widodo is at his hotel, reflecting on the twilight years of his presidency. Any regrets? “I only look to the future, not the past,” he says. Does that future involve tending vegetables in his garden? “Not for me,” he says definitively. “I want to continue to work for my people.”

James Chambers is Monocle’s Hong Kong bureau chief and Asia editor.

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