Oligarch puppet or people’s choice? —the rise and rise of Joko Widodo

Oligarch puppet or people’s choice? —the rise and rise of Joko Widodo

Scholars divide over whether the Jokowi ‘phenomenon’ represents a victory for Indonesia’s media oligarchs, or a serious challenge to them, writes ROSS TAPSELL.

This year, Indonesia elected a new president, Joko Widodo (popularly known as Jokowi). He catapulted from mayor of Solo in 2005, to Jakarta governor in 2012, to president in 2014. Not part of the established former New Order hierarchy, Jokowi’s ascendancy to the presidency undoubtedly raises questions for scholars of Indonesian politics surrounding the nature and influence of oligarchy.

The oligarchy theory has been led by Richard Robison and Vedi Hadiz, and by Jeffrey Winters, who have argued that, while an authoritarian government no longer controls power or sets the agenda, Indonesia’s new era of democracy, post-1998, is dominated by many of the old faces, while new ones are drawn into the same predatory practices that have defined politics in Indonesia for decades.

The second strand of scholarship focuses on the process of Indonesia’s democratic transition from below, through political agency and influence and the rise of popular forces in Indonesian politics. Is Jokowi’s rise to the presidency a sign that the oligarchs are losing power? Or was Jokowi’s success attributable to the influence of certain oligarchs?

One way to try to answer this question is to examine how Jokowi became a media phenomenon throughout 2012 and 2013, despite not being part of the oligarchic elite which owns and controls Indonesia’s largest media conglomerates. Media ownership and control are central to the oligarch thesis.

Most of Indonesia’s media owners have direct affiliations with political parties and are, in some cases, themselves presidential candidates. Does that mean Jokowi’s victory in 2014 was one for individual citizens over the large oligarchical powers of Indonesia’s media, or did media oligarchs play a significant role in his success?

Those in favour of ‘oligarchy’ would emphasise that Jokowi was only allowed to campaign as a candidate for Jakarta governor in the first place due to the machinations of oligarchs Megawati Sukarnoputri (PDI-P founder) and Prabowo Subianto (Gerindra founder and presidential candidate).

Jokowi and his vice-governor candidate, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, were supported by a well-funded Gerindra media team who, among other initiatives, spent significant amounts on television advertising. This money came from Prabowo and his millionaire brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo.

It was, then, the oligarchic media (largely the two Jakarta-based 24-hour news stations TVOne and MetroTV that broadcast all around the archipelago) which, through constant coverage of his blusukans (impromptu visits), made Jokowi into a national figure.

Rather than a victory of individual citizens over the former New Order oligarchs allied to Prabowo’s coalition, this was a victory of one set of oligarchs over another.

This consistent coverage may have been largely profit-driven, but it still needed support from the oligarchic owners Aburizal Bakrie (TVOne) and Surya Paloh (MetroTV). Once the presidential election campaign began and two candidates, Prabowo and Jokowi, were nominated, these media owners took sides and allied themselves to a coalition.

Jokowi allied himself with various New Order oligarchs such as his vice-presidential running mate Jusuf Kalla, and media moguls Surya Paloh, Jawa Pos Group owner Dahlan Iskan, and others. Rather than a victory of individual citizens over the former New Order oligarchs allied to Prabowo’s coalition, this was a victory of one set of oligarchs over another.

Old faces continue

Those in favour of the oligarchy thesis might say that Jokowi’s victory does not mean there is anything new in Indonesian politics, but that the old faces continue to be the drivers of political power, while new faces, like Jokowi, are drawn into the same predatory practices that have defined politics in Indonesia in the first place. In short, the political system is still dominated by oligarchy, and Jokowi’s group happened to win.

Joko Widodo
Jokowi’s rise as a media phenomenon represents a new ‘media darling’ form of popular politician (Wikimedia Commons).

Alternatively, and an argument which to me seems more compelling from researching Jokowi and the Indonesian media this past year, is that Jokowi’s victory should be considered a break from the oligarchic New Order-era elite which has dominated Indonesian media and politics, despite reformasi, in 1998. Jokowi’s rise as a media phenomenon represents a new, ‘media-darling’ form of popular politician, driven by widespread coverage of a unique form of governance and increased prominence in the media of polls of presidential candidates. Jokowi may have needed the backing of Megawati and Prabowo to become a candidate for the Jakarta governorship, but he still had to beat the well-funded and entrenched incumbent, Fauzi Bowo, to win.

In this election, as Greg Fealy wrote, ‘conventional political strategies relying on big money and establishment figures were now vulnerable to independent candidates who could connect with electors and draw favourable media attention’. Even if Jokowi and Basuki’s media campaign was heavily supported by Gerindra, no serious commentator would argue that Prabowo and Megawati supported his nomination for governor because they wanted him to eventually become president. They clearly hoped for the position for themselves.

Grassroots campaigning

Furthermore, many Indonesians who supported Jokowi’s campaign did so through grassroots campaigning and volunteer communities, which included social media platforms and the ‘prod-user’(those who both produce and consume new media content).

Since Jokowi arrived in Jakarta in 2012, many Indonesian consumers of both old and new media yearned for news of a politician who represented a break from the old faces of Indonesian politics. These media owners were forced to continue to run Jokowi-stories, or risk losing profits for their companies. During the election year, seeing power and influence become increasingly threatened, the oligarchs who dominate Indonesian television, Bakrie and Hary Tanoesoedibyo, allied with Prabowo and covered his campaign with hagiographic fervour. Meanwhile, Surya Paloh and a few other large media conglomerate owners who were allied to Jokowi, covered his campaign highly favourably.

But, rather than showing the might of oligarchs, this highlights the complexities or kaleidoscopic nature of Indonesian media and politics, which are not adequately explained by the oligarchy thesis. This is not to say that big money and political machinations from oligarchic elites are not important. Certainly, rich and powerful individuals will continue to dominate the political economy of the media industry in Indonesia, as they do in other democracies around the world, including Australia. But Jokowi’s rise shows the power of non-oligarchic or counter-oligarchic actors and groups which increasingly negate the power and influence of the large media conglomerates.

Jokowi’s media campaign often was dysfunctional and chaotic, as opposed to Prabowo’s highly professional top-down approach to media management and campaign activities. In many ways, Jokowi’s presidential campaign was saved by the collective action of individual citizens, rather than by the media owners who sided with him.

The election was indeed a close call, but Jokowi’s ascendancy from local mayor to president in a period of only two years represents a new period of contestation. Rather than submitting to the same old predatory practices of oligarchic media ownership, new practices and initiatives to gain political momentum were forged via new forms of political campaigning, disseminated via new mediums and platforms.

The media was indeed a vehicle and venue in the creation of the Jokowi phenomenon, and the Suharto-era oligarchic power and dominance has been openly and somewhat spectacularly challenged.

Main photo:
Jokowi at election parade (hmad syauki, Flickr).

Dr Ross Tapsell is a lecturer in Asian Studies at the Australian National University. He researches the media in Indonesia.

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