You can't read a paper or watch TV in Indonesia without coming to the conclusion that Joko Widodo ('Jokowi'), the mayor of Jakarta, is a shoe-in for the 2014 Indonesian presidential election.

Not only is he the front runner in most polls, he is ubiquitous, getting footpaths fixed, sorting out street vendor logistics, shoring up Jakarta's flood defences and restarting construction of the city's monorail.

How does someone who a year ago was just a small-town mayor become the likely leader of Southeast Asia's largest country? The US experience provides a clue. Presidential systems can elevate a peanut farmer to the POTUS role. And the other current candidates seem fatally flawed for one reason or another.

The runner-up in most polls, and front-runner until Jokowi appeared on the scene, is Prabowo Subianto, the subject of an in-depth interview in last week's Tempo magazine (subscription required, but worth $3 if you have any interest in Indonesia). Former top general, former son-in law of President Soeharto, and drummed out of the army for kidnapping Soeharto's political opponents, Prabowo answered some of the many criticisms aimed at him and set out his political platform.

The economic elements make a depressing read.

He sees a much more active role for the state in running the economy, a more self-sufficient and inward looking economy, alongside resistance to market-oriented policies. This would reverse the successful economic policies of the past forty years and seems like a return to the failed economics of Sukarno, but it plays well to a popular audience.

Prabowo is the son of Sumitro Djojohadikusumo, the intellectual father of Indonesian economics. Sumitro started out a traditional socialist but his interventionist leanings were tempered by the reality of Indonesia's limited administrative and governance capacity when he was trade minister under Soeharto. If he were still alive he might inject some of this reality into his son's economics. He would certainly endorse the tilt at the presidency: the story goes that he once said Indonesia should be run by his family, using his brains, Prabowo's guns and Hashim's (Prabowo's brother) money.

Of the other contestants, former president (and Sukarno's daughter) Megawati Sukarnoputri is a proven loser in the presidential stakes. Prominent businessman and bank-roller of the Golkar party, Aburizal Bakrie, seems to be demonstrating that money alone is not enough to win. He can't shake off the reputational damage from the Sidoardjo mud disaster. 

Still, Jokowi has a few hurdles to clear.

He has no political party of his own and would probably have to rely on nomination by Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-P), so in order to clear the way she might decide not to run. Amazingly, his appeal seems to carry weight well beyond Jakarta, but will that last when the other candidates get their well-funded publicity machines going? And if Jokowi appears like a shooting star in the night sky, so could an as-yet-unidentified candidate, although time is running out fast.

Looking ahead, it's hard to judge what sort of president Jokowi would make.

He has said almost nothing in public about his vision for Indonesia, either at home or abroad. Indeed, his current (and very convenient) stance seems to be 'shucks, I'm just the mayor of Jakarta'. Further, one of his main challenges would be to get legislation through parliament without much control over his presumptive party, which in any case won't have a majority. The weight of popularity would doubtless help, provided the enthusiasm survives the challenges of running a country as difficult and diverse as Indonesia. But the Indonesian parliament has proved just as quarrelsome as the US Congress and, in recent years, has often made life very difficult for the Indonesian administration. Even President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose party won an outright parliamentary majority 2009 who was elected with an absolute majority in 2009, has never found it easy to get legislation through parliament.

Indonesia has had an extraordinary range of presidents, from the flamboyant Sukarno to the blind cleric Abdurrahman Wahid. It matters a lot who gets the job, both for Indonesia and the whole of the Southeast Asian region. Australians ought to be taking more interest in this, and our media ought to be doing more to help us understand what is unfolding next door.

Photo by Flickr user j'star photo.