Indonesia’s Next Jokowi?

Indonesia’s Next Jokowi?

What you need to know

The secret to reform in Indonesia is simple, don’t mention religion.

After Jakarta Governor Basuki Purnama’s landslide loss last month to an opponent with the heavy backing of Islamic conservatives the worry among some of the punditry was that his fate would warn off other would-be reformers from entering politics. Religion and communalism would drive campaigns, erode the country’s secular traditions and risk sectarian violence.

But don’t tell that to Suyoto Ngartep Mustajab , the head of an East Java regency called Bojonegoro. After 10 years as the area’s "bupati," helping bring Exxon Mobil’s Cepu oil and gas project off the ground and spending the proceeds on education and infrastructure, he says the days of reformers are far from over.

At least that’s what he hopes for. That’s because next year, when term limits force him from his local perch, he wants to run for governor and then from there, who knows? The secret for an ambitious reformer? Don’t mention religion.

“Ahok was doing good work and then he had to tap on the bees nest and then he got stung,” he said, referring to Purnama’s more widely known nickname.

Purnama was ousted in large part because of an ill-judged quip about the Quran that many in this Muslim-majority capital found offensive. He stood trial for blasphemy during the campaign. A verdict is due May 9.

“He knew it was dangerous to talk about religion. He didn’t need to do it. But he did it anyway.”

President Joko Widodo’s meteoric rise from obscure small town mayor to head of state in nine years has most journalists here on the lookout for the next political star.

Suyoto deserves to be on anyone’s radar.

Before Suyoto took over as bupati in 2008, the US$2 billion Cepu project had been in limbo for ten years while special interests linked to Suyoto’s predecessor demanded payouts. Instead Suyoto shepherded government permitting for the project from the central government, while ensuring safeguards for the local environment and jobs.

Under the production sharing agreement with the US oil major, the local government of Bojonegoro – population 1.5 million – rakes in 6 percent of the value of production. That amounts to about 800 billion rupiah or US$60 million a year. But after the project has paid off its development costs in about two years receipts will swell to US$150 million or about two thirds of the local government’s budget.

What’s interesting is what Suyoto has done with the money. Any amount over 800 billion rupiah goes into a sovereign wealth fund. Anything under that amount is split between infrastructure such as roads and human development such as education. This year the local government effectively made public high school free by handing out lump sum payments for students that would defray their tuition.

“There is a resource curse,” Suyoto said listing off corruption, conflict, environmental damage and frivolous use of funds as some of the symptoms.

“I learned from others.”

During his tenure Suyoto says local income has grown faster than national average, the poverty rate has been halved and the living conditions have improved in some drastic ways.

“Public defecation was about 35 percent of the population when I started, now its just over 10 percent,” he says.

Speaking after giving a leadership presentation to the national auditing agency, Suyoto said the local government is host to several groups of politicians, bureaucrats and academics hoping to glean hints on better governance.

He said that the Jakarta election hasn’t changed what people want from leaders.

“People want a better standard of living,” he said

“When I ran for office I didn’t say anything about Cepu but the incumbent was promising oil wealth for everyone. I didn’t know anything about oil and gas so I just talked about roads, agriculture, education, health services and government engagement,” he recalls

“You have to listen to the public and what they need. It’s not communal issues or ethnicity that are what people are worried about. It’s quality of life. Nothing has changed.”

The next round of elections will tell.

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Editor: Edward White