Indonesia, Southeast Asia's most populous country, is holding presidential elections in July, and the highly popular Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo (commonly known as Jokowi) is predicted to win. The ways in which Jokowi has cultivated his impressive political power are interesting because they not only inject new perspectives into Indonesian political life, they also challenge existing frameworks and understandings of political power in Southeast Asia.
Observers of Southeast Asian politics often note that regional elites cultivate power and popular legitimacy by employing grand symbols, political rituals, and narratives that distance them from ordinary people. Many leaders are portrayed as possessing some extraordinary quality: eloquence, charisma, wisdom, wealth, heroism, custodianship of heritage and religion, symbolising democracy, royalty or even divinity.
Millions of people revered Cambodia's late King Father Norodom Sihanouk and Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej as demigods. The invented symbolism of kings as a divinity has a long tradition in both Theravada Buddhist states.
Cambodia's strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen is known to spend hours delivering impromptu speeches at public infrastructure project launchings. His favourite topics are Cambodia's experience with war, peace, development, and economic growth, all intended to bolster him as the saviour of the Cambodian people and the architect of the country's peace and development. To reinforce his political power, Hun Sen is also known to have drawn from powerful symbols portraying his military background and his generous support of Buddhism, and propagating a narrative depicting himself as the reincarnation of a sixteenth-century Khmer King Kân.
Senior Burmese military generals are also known to have selected popular symbols to build legitimacy. They have portrayed themselves as guardians of Buddhism and descendants of Burma's ancient warrior kings.
Thailand's former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, overthrown in a military coup in 2006, continues to influence Thai politics. He used his eloquence, his wealth and populist policies to win the hearts of the poor and rural peasants in Thailand's north and northeast. Thaksin also portrayed himself as a nationalist who rescued and built Thailand in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Thaksin's political rivals have employed counter-symbolism to achieve their political agenda. They promote Abhisit Vejjajiva's good looks and his Eton and Oxford education as symbols of a 'good' man who deserves to rule the country. They also portray themselves as guardians of the monarchy and the nation.
Other politicians derive popularity from the idea that they symbolise democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's opposition party leader and daughter of the country's colonial era national hero General Aung San, is domestically and internationally known for her image as a champion of democracy. Sam Rainsy, President of Cambodia's main opposition party, is also known as a democracy icon. Nevertheless, their critics suggest that Suu Kyi's silence on the violence committed by Myanmar's majority Buddhists against ethnic minority Rohingya Muslims and Sam Rainsy's often anti-Vietnamese rhetoric cast doubt on their stance in regards to democracy and human rights.
We see few of these grand political symbols with Jokowi. He has not shown off his wealth, education or eloquence. Neither has he constructed an image of himself as a democracy icon, nor connected himself to any ancient Javanese king. What Jokowi has constructed is a different set of symbols. He wears everyday clothes and drives an ordinary car to work. He visits poor communities in Jakarta and listens to their problems. He lets his actions speak louder than words. These images of him as honest, caring, transparent and a good listener give him huge popular support.
Jokowi's critics suggest that if elected as president, he will be surrounded by rent-seekers and is unlikely to transform Indonesia. Nevertheless, his sudden rise to political prominence and his ability to garner enormous popular support by using a set of symbols quite different from those of other politicians in Indonesia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia redefine ideas of political power and electoral politics in the region.
Political legitimacy relies increasingly on the blessing of the electorate. Southeast Asian political elites may have to rethink their constructions of grand political symbolism and narratives, which are becoming less and less relevant to current realities. Perhaps they should learn from Jokowi.