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Pro-poor governor makes a difference in Jakarta

A year after election, Joko Widodo is more popular than ever

Pro-poor governor makes a difference in Jakarta

Jakarta's new governor Joko Widodo has brought in popular reforms in health care and education. (Picture: AFP/Bay Ismoyo)

Ryan Dagur, Jakarta

October 23, 2013

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Aminudin has lived in a small wooden house in the Jakarta slum Tanah Tinggi for 35 years. Sifting through trash, he makes about 15,000 rupiah (US$1.50) a day selling bottles, cardboard, tin cans and scrap metal.

With the help of his four children – three of them graduated from elementary school – it’s just enough to cover daily costs.

“Now they work just like me,” says Aminudin.

His youngest has to juggle school work and scavenging, he adds, and the money they make together is not enough to cover things like secondary education for his children or health care.

Jakarta’s 3.3 million poor – those who live below $2 per day, according to the World Bank – have long been neglected.

But over the past year a patriarchal figure has emerged from among the long line of corrupt and inept politicians as the new city governor and champion of the poor. Joko Widodo has won adoration across the city.

Since he was elected in October last year, Widodo has implemented a healthcare scheme, Kartu Jakarta Sehat (KJS), offering free treatment to the poor.

“Before KJS, I used to buy medicines from market stalls. I never went to the hospital. Now I can – everything is free,” says Aminudin.

Admirers of the new governor say they have developed a closeness to Widodo which never existed before in Jakarta.

The 52-year-old is often seen walking the streets of the bustling, traffic-choked capital, talking and listening to its citizens, a style which is called blusukan by Indonesians.

The former mayor of Surakarta in Central Java province, who was a nominee for World Mayor 2012, says that blusukan helps him to understand problems and to find solutions.

His flagship KJP program extends beyond health care. More than 50,000 students from poor families now hold the KJP card which gives them access to financial aid to buy books, uniforms, stationary, transport and even food.

But the governor, a former furniture salesman, is not without his detractors.

Prominent activist Azaz Tigor is among the skeptics. He says that healthcare programs have come and gone in Jakarta and that KJP is nothing particularly new. Worse, he says that Widodo’s approach is little more than style over substance.

Blusukan is common. Other public figures also do this. The difference is that he does it very often,” he says.

A fawning regard for political figure like Widodo is understandable, given the long history of political malfeasance and cronyism in Indonesia. And it’s not uncommon for politicians anywhere in the world to experience high popularity when they first get elected – only time will tell whether Widodo’s can last.

Still, by focusing on getting closer to his own people, the governor of Jakarta has differentiated himself from many who have held the position in the past, building trust with the city’s people.

Close to a thousand vendors who used to throng the streets around a textile market in Tanah Abang, Central Jakarta, volunteered to be relocated to a market building nearby in an attempt by Widodo to curb Jakarta’s notorious traffic problems.

In the past, mass relocations have largely been caused by the rapacious construction of shopping malls, but this time the vendors appeared to recognize the problem at hand and willingly act on it.

“Even though the number of buyers here [in the new market building] is not so many, we are safe,” says Rahmawati, who had for 10 years sold batik clothes on the street.

She now earns as much as one million rupiah in a good month, double her income in the past when thugs would often demand protection money.

Even those outside of the capital who do not benefit from Widodo’s policies appear to support him.

A survey conducted in April by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that 28.6 percent of 1,635 respondents from 31 of Indonesia’s 34 provinces considered the Jakarta governor a suitable candidate for next year’s presidential election.

In the view of Boni Hargens, a political analyst from Jakarta’s University of Indonesia, Widodo has returned politics to the people.

"He seems to be the only alternative as a future leader,” he said.

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