Widodo and Indonesia’s changing political culture

The Indonesian president, a political outsider, is taking the country’s political culture down a new path. But where will it end up?

Widodo and Indonesia’s changing political culture

Joko Widodo, the first Indonesian president from outside the country’s traditional political and military elite, is drawing on a strand of Indonesian culture that differs markedly from that of his rivals and many of his allies. That strand, based on rukun (conflict avoidance norms), has a much more egalitarian foundation for political participation and leadership than its twin, hormat (norms of respect). 

Interest groups and power-dependency analysis miss this fundamental aspect of his leadership and consequently misinterpret his behavior, particularly his inclusion of rivals in his cabinet and his supposed aversion to civil rights. The power of President Joko’s rukun approach has changed expectations for many Indonesians and has opened the door for the reconstruction of Indonesian political life in a less hierarchical form in the coming years.

Joko is an exceptional leader. I don’t mean this in the conventional sense that through the force of his character and intellect, he has been able to impose his will, although I mean this, too. What I emphasize, and what is missing from analyses of the “Jokowi phenomenon,” is the cultural change that he is bringing about. Economic, education, agricultural and other policies can dissipate or be reversed, but cultural changes, when they become a part of habit and institutions, cannot. The cultural changes that Joko is fostering have far-reaching consequences for Indonesian political life. Like all cultural change, these changes are only dimly perceived as they are taking place. Joko is not just building bridges and ports; he is building a new model of Indonesian leadership. Future leaders will follow his lead, but more important, the implications of his leadership style are institutional. Deeply rooted in Javanese culture, his leadership is opening the door to a new type of politics.  

Jokowi’s 2019 re-election

The 2019 presidential election and the campaign leading up to it presented a conundrum. How is it that there was a 14.3 percent increase in voter turnout when the contest was between the same two candidates as in 2014, and the narrative around the election was about move and countermove as the two sides courted the Muslim vote? Pundits argued that Joko had been co-opted and compromised, and that the political horse-trading was simply politics as usual.  Each side tried to put together a winning coalition by aligning itself with leaders of various societal groups, including religious organizations. But then, why did turnout increase from 135 million in 2014 to more than 154 million? Why would so many more voters go to the polls for that?  

This was not just about the choice of Muslim cleric Ma’ruf Amin as Joko’s running mate. A secondary narrative had the Indonesian Armed Forces co-opting Joko’s government and wheedling its way back into the halls of power.    Watching then-Security Minister Wiranto, a former powerful Army general, on TV behind a microphone, flanked by the uniformed military and police commanders, was a stunning déjà vu. For some, Islamists had already won the election and the military was plotting a comeback. That Joko had been co-opted both by Islamist and the TNI was believable to many because of a story whispered about him: the president is diffident and weak, he prevaricates and often capitulates. Despite Joko’s 10-point win, this narrative persists. The post-election analysis in Strategic Review is a case in point. The president is an “enigmatic figure” who fails again and again to live up to his promises.

President Joko Widodo, center right, welcomes defeated rival Prabowo Subianto, center left, to his cabinet.

This narrative took hold early in his presidency. The assertion of the leader of Joko’s political party, former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, in 2015 that “president and vice president naturally enforce a political party’s policy line”; his reversal of policies announced by cabinet ministers; the reversal on appointing Megawati ally Budi Gunawan as the country’s National Police chief; and other events and reversals led to the impression of a president out of his depth and unable to follow through on his priorities. He was also criticized for inaction. It seemed to take forever for his signature infrastructure program to get off the ground. And tackling the really hard stuff, such as revamping labor laws, seemed beyond his powers.

Those who had hoped Joko would confront vested interests and address past gross human rights abuses were particularly disappointed. Joko and his team talked of breaking up business “mafias” and fighting corruption more vigorously, of reconciliation among parties on the two sides of the events of Sept 30, 1965, and its aftermath, and of investigating the murders of student protesters at Trisakti University in Jakarta in 1998. None of this has happened.  In fact, any move to change the official history of the purges and mass killings between 1965 and 1967 was immediately quashed by vociferous and threatening demonstrations by Islamist groups and retired military officers.

Yet the election has shown that among vast swaths of the population, Joko is hugely popular. So what is going on?

One narrative, which on the surface seems to explain the enthusiasms about the 2014 and 2019 elections, argues that Joko is popular because he is the first president with whom ordinary Indonesians can identify. There is an element of truth in this, like there is in the view that Vice President Ma’ruf helped Joko gain acceptance among more conservative Muslims, and that the presence of former Army generals Wiranto and Luhut Panjaitan on Joko’s campaign team attracted some who might otherwise have gravitated to Prabowo Subianto, another former Army general who ran twice against Joko. But does that explain the high turnout, up from 70 percent to almost 81 percent in 2019? Prabowo improved his vote tally by more than six million votes, but Joko improved his by more than 14 million.   

When we talk about the development of democracy in Indonesia, of democratic habits, or of its institutionalization, we are talking about changes in the way the governed understand their relationship with the government. The words we use and how they are understood in describing this relationship, the habits that control how we behave when facing those in power, the values we reference to explain our behavior and that of those who rule over us, everything changes. This involves shifts rather than disjunctions. As such, it involves a reinterpretation of old concepts rather than the invention of a whole new vocabulary. 

Cultural foundations

It may seem a stretch to draw on Javanese culture to understand Indonesian politics, as the Javanese comprise less than 35 percent of Indonesia’s population. But the Javanese have dominated Indonesian politics, bureaucracy and education since colonial times. If the elite of a society are the greatest defenders of a culture, it is significant that every president since independence in 1945 (except Joko) was part of the Javanese aristocracy.  

Former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, left,former military chief and future member of President Joko Widodo’s cabinet Wiranto, and former president Abdurrahman Wahid during a meeting in 2005.

Of the first four presidents that followed Soeharto after his ouster in 1998, three were members of the Jakarta elite, and the late Abdurrahman Wahid, the exception, was of the religious elite. They had intertwined personal histories, and all are connected and have deep roots in a political class that has governed Indonesia since its independence. One industrious and creative blogger has even traced all of Indonesia’s presidents up to Joko, who was born in a slum area in Central Java Province, to a common aristocratic ancestor. Joko is culturally very Javanese, but he also stands out for a lack of an aristocratic or elite background.  To understand why there is so much enthusiasm for Joko, and fear of him, we have to understand what he is doing that is culturally different from his culturally similar predecessors. What common cultural resources is Joko drawing on and reinterpreting that set him apart and make him such a threat?

Franz Magnis-Suseno, a prominent Jesuit priest in Indonesia, proposes a framework for understanding Javanese behavior and attitudes. Javanese culture is all about the preservation of harmony. This harmony has two dimensions to it. Relations among unequal parties are underpinned by values and habits related to hormat, or respect. They are associated with isin (the feeling of shame or shyness that is the flipside of hormat), and sungkan (the feeling of positive shyness, or awe, that one experiences in the presence of a superior). Tata-krama, or etiquette, is fundamental to the proper expression of hormat relations.  The other dimension involves relations among equals, and is supported by values and habits associated with rukun, or conflict avoidance. Conflict avoidance is promoted by the virtues of sabar (cautiousness and patience) and terima (to react reasonably even in disappointment or adversity), and is institutionalized through the practices of gotong royong (mutual assistance and cooperation among members of a community) and musyawarah untuk mufakat (the practice of deliberation among equals until consensus, or consent, is achieved).

Writing in the 1980s, Magnis-Suseno notes that the ethic of hormat is prevalent among urban bureaucrats who do not work with their hands; rukun is prevalent among the wong cilik, the “little people,” who are the masses of agricultural workers and low-income urban dwellers. In the context of Soeharto’s New Order regime, these were the functional groups (golongan karya) and the floating mass (massa mengambang), respectively.  In the present context, they are the political and economic elite, and the common citizens. So Joko is not simply the first president who is “one of us” to the Indonesian masses; he is the embodiment of rukun over hormat, of the ethic of the wong cilik over that of the political and economic elite.  

Post-reformasi young adults, particularly young professionals who have graduated from university in an expanding tertiary education sector, have succeeded in a much less structured, at times chaotic, economic and social climate. Partly because of the 2003 Labor Law, they are frequently more mobile and economically self-reliant. They are guided more by what they think is good for their families, neighborhoods and themselves. They look less to Jakarta and traditional authority figures for guidance. Democracy itself has promoted this development, as citizens have gradually come to realize that government figures, while requiring polite esteem, no longer require unquestioning deference and loyalty. It is these voters, fed up with self-interested and self-perpetuating political elites, who formed the Solidarity Party of Indonesia (PSI) – a name that itself evokes the rukun side of Indonesian culture.

Students clash with police during protests outside Indonesia’s House of Representatives over controversial proposals they felt would weaken the nation’s Anti-Corruption Commission.

Not everyone has found the post-1998 fluidity of the social and economic world comfortable or thrived in this new Indonesia. Many among the urban poor and middle class find comfort in religious certitudes, the company of fellow believers or nostalgia for the imposed stability of the New Order. These tendencies are buttressed by a traditional culture that prizes order and restraint, epitomized by the Javanese aphorism sepi ing pamrih, ramé ing gawé – to be free of egotism or self-seeking behavior and fervently active in one’s social position or role. Indonesians are still oriented toward the rukun and the hormat dimensions of their culture, however the lines between society’s population groupings are now drawn differently. Educated urbanites, especially the young, the Javanese of the cultural heartland where prosperity is more widespread and rukun traditions stronger, and the non-Muslim outer islands are now on one side of the line, while the urban masses, those who have turned to the certitudes of religion, and those whose prosperity depends on traditional hormat patronage relationships are on the other. Joko’s ability to galvanize a diverse rukun-oriented constituency is why he is such a threat to traditional social and religious hierarchies, and why Prabowo’s coalition of Islamist and nostalgic elites could make common cause.

But why is Joko such an effective representative of the rukun side of tradition?  

Mental revolution

During his first presidential campaign and early into his first term, Joko talked frequently about a “revolusi mental.” The term dates from founding president Soekarno’s 1956 Independence Day speech and appears in a more prominent role during a 1957 speech. Soekarno lamented the fracturing of Indonesian politics and the chaotic social and political situation. The speech proposes a pincer movement on the problems of his day: Guided Democracy to subdue a rebellious and chaotic political situation, and a New Life Movement to overcome the economic and cultural legacies of colonial rule.

His New Life Movement was to instill a revolusi mental and promote a simple lifestyle, hygiene and healthy living, literacy, cooperation (gotong royong), spirituality and national vigilance, as well as the establishment of state enterprises. This mix of initiatives found an echo in Joko’s Presidential Instruction Number 12/2016. The problems that Soekarno identified were updated and reduced to three: a decline in national authority, economic weakness and intolerance. While Soekarno’s revolusi mental was a way of overcoming colonial era legacies, for Joko it is the character defects identified by journalist and author Mochtar Lubis in the 1970s that needed to be overcome. These included a tendency for hypocrisy; a reluctance to take responsibility; a feudal mentality; a penchant for superstition; weakness of character; and an artistic rather than a practical orientation.

Joko has not used the term revolusi mental recently, perhaps because of the criticism it received. The Prabowo campaign said that the program is ineffective; senior Islamic politician Amien Rais characterized it as fraudulent and lacking a moral foundation. Joko’s deputy campaign manager responded not by citing programmatic achievements, but by referencing Joko’s character. That is the point. Joko’s revolusi mental is not something that can be implemented through the bureaucracy. This new one is cultural. It is a change in the way Indonesians view the world. Words take on meanings that would not have been familiar to a speaker a few years before, and new activities become embedded in old cultural categories. If Joko is the archetype of the revolusi mental, we have to unpack what it is about him that is revolutionary.

The revolution as Jokowi

The paradigmatic story of President Joko’s leadership style comes from his days as the mayor of Solo, in Central Java. As in many Indonesian towns and cities, the street vendors on the main thoroughfare in Solo were creating problems. The city wanted them to move to a specially designated area, where they could pursue their businesses without blocking traffic. Street vendors in Indonesia are a notoriously unruly lot, resisting anything they think might damage their interests. The story is about how Joko, the highest local official, repeatedly met with the lowly street vendors. He bridged the status differences by listening, and through his speech and bearing. They finally agreed to move. His is a leadership of persuasion and attraction, not orders. To attract and persuade, one has to recognize the person in front of you as a partner in a process, not as an opponent or simply a person of lower status. It is a leadership of rukun, not of hormat.

Indonesians, and the Javanese in particular, prize humility, duty, respect, simplicity and politeness. Traditionally, they especially value patience (sabar), and a willingness to accept (terima) setbacks and one’s fate (nasib). The debacle around the Budi Gunawan nomination for chief of police was cited as an example of Joko’s indecisiveness and lack of experience. He sees it differently. On July 2, 2016, his younger son, Kaesang, uploaded a video on YouTube called adu panko, or arm wrestling. In it, he outclasses his father. Joko smiles at his son and tells him that physical strength is not the most important kind of strength. No, more important is to be “kuat sabar,” or strong in patience.  

The threat to traditional hormat authority relationships and the Jakarta elite whose power it underpins is evident by Prabowo’s actions, both during the 2019 campaign and after it. By trying to undermine Joko’s reputation for humility, Prabowo’s campaign affirmed the cultural power of Joko’s demeanor, his rukun persona. His own authoritarian orientation, in which he emphasized his military experience and command, and repeated again and again that he will be forceful, decisive and bold in his pursuit of his goals, is the quintessential attitude of an authoritarian leader, one whose power resides in conformity to hormat norms.  But it is his post-election pivot that is most revealing of Prabowo and the interests he represents. With head-spinning alacrity, Prabowo abandoned his Islamic-based opposition campaign partners and cozied up to Megawati. Prabowo and Megawati, as defenders of the old elite, have more in common than either Prabowo and his Islamist supporters or Joko and the chairwoman of his Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle.  

The election may seem to have been about Indonesia’s development path, Islam’s role in society and politics, the defense of Indonesian sovereignty and the efficiency of state-owned enterprises. It was about all of these, but most of all it was about culture. The revolusi mental has morphed from a government program modeled on Soekarno’s New Life Movement to a cultural phenomenon focused on Joko’s conduct and rhetoric. And it is in this light that Joko’s embrace of Ma’ruf and Wiranto needs to be seen.
Alliances and the mental revolution

The Javanese are conflict averse; they prize social harmony above all else.  Open conflict is not the result of opposing interests per se, but of the emotions associated with those interests. There is a very strong norm to stay calm and unemotional, circumspect and controlled. Conflicts of interest can be dealt with through discussion and compromise; it is when emotions get involved that conflict becomes insoluble and harmony is threatened. Indirection and dissimulation are employed to sound out others’ opinions and desires, both before and during negotiations. 

The Javanese avoid delivering bad news and speak elliptically about anything controversial. They are noncommittal and evasive until they know where the ground lays. When faced with opposition the standard strategy is to befriend and co-opt rather than confront and subdue. I can think of no better description of Joko. He is famous for not letting on what his opinion might be until the decision is made. He is noncommittal until the time is “right.” He invites every political party, seemingly indiscriminately, into his governing coalition. It is in this light that his selections of Ma’ruf and Wiranto have to be seen. The issue for Joko is not how do subdue the opposition, but rather how his opponents can be brought into the fold. Political Islam has been a part of Indonesia’s modern history since the anticolonial movement. It is not going away. The armed forces have played a decisive role in the anticolonial fight and the defeat of separatist movements. They have gone too far in their suppression of dissent in the past, but they, too, are indispensable. Culturally, Joko can do nothing else but bridge this divide by bringing the strongest proponents of the hormat tradition into a musyawarah or a gotong royong relationship, building a new way forward together.

In the past, gotong royong and musyawarah untuk mufakat have been used tactically by hormat leaders. The glove of the rukun tradition has softened the authoritarian hand of hormat rule. This is most obviously true of Soeharto, but it is also true of bureaucrats up and down the hierarchy. Gotong royong is also known as “kerja bakti” by villagers. It is required and often coerced by local leaders. And musyawarah is often pro forma, which is the means for authority to impose its will through socialisasi (a distinctively Indonesian term that refers to the top-down inculcation of subordinates to a new practice or policy), rather than the deliberative and open-ended process it is ideally meant to be. These fundamental institutions of the rukun tradition have often been deployed to reinforce elite dominance and undermine local autonomy. This was particularly true of the New Order era, when today’s elites, such as Prabowo, Megawati, former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and others gained prominence.  But it was true before that as well, as is evident by Soekarno’s association of Guided Democracy with his revolusi mental and the New Life Movement. The hormat culture of the elite has long distorted and repressed Indonesia’s rukun heritage in service of their continued political dominance.   

Joko is a threat to that dominance. If we view the 2019 presidential race as a contest between representatives of differing streams of a cultural tradition rather than representatives of differing interest groups, Joko and Prabowo’s alliances and rhetoric become much more understandable. Joko’s choice of Ma’ruf and appointment of Wiranto as security minister (and now Prabowo as defense minister) are not compromises in an interest-group game of election politics, they are sincere attempts to bring two hormat-based institutions, and the two greatest threats to Indonesian democracy, into a process of cultural change. The dangers to Indonesia’s young democracy were made clear in 2015-16 when attempts were made to re-examine the events of 1965 and their aftermath. Many military leaders are antipathetic to any reconsideration of the Army’s role in those events. The Islamist threat was evident that year and in early 2017, when hard-line Muslim groups succeeded in thwarting the election of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian, to a new term as governor of Jakarta. Their ability to mobilize masses based on religious intolerance was a seminal event and a political call to action for many Indonesians.

Joko’s cultural instincts are just that – instincts. He has brought the TNI and conservative Islam into his government. What happens next?  Ideally, the processes of musyawarah is not just about compromise and consent. It is about discovering new paths that are mutually beneficial, that satisfy all parties. This can only happen if the parties are talking to each other and working together.  Joko’s version of revolusi mental is the means of achieving this.

Institutionalization of democratic norms

Joko is no liberal democrat. His foundational civic belief is not in the rights of man and individual freedoms, but rather in the harmony of society and a place for each in that harmonious order. Democracy is a way of scaling up the rukun institutions of Javanese culture; rights are secondary. In this regard, the Javanese reputation for tolerance is not based in the view that others have rights that are inherent to their status as members of society, and that these rights should be respected and defended. Rather, it is based on conflict avoidance. 

As long as an individual or a group does not disturb the equanimity of those around them, there is no sense in making an issue of any odd behavior or belief.   Or if the disturbance can be avoided by closing one’s eyes, or changing one’s own behavior, that is a far better course to take. Differences in opinion, in ideology, in behavior, are to be expected and are not important. What is important is that family, group and society continue in a harmonious and orderly manner. An individual’s first duty is to respect and contribute to that harmony. In an election, like in a musyawara, differences are aired. And like mufakat at the conclusion of a musyawara, in which the participants agree to a settlement and to move forward, the results of an election are the establishment of a new status quo. Differences have been vented and are put in the past.

The consequence of this very Javanese view of democracy is apparent in Joko’s postelection behavior in two ways: first in his willingness to bring former adversaries into his government; and second in his attitude toward the demonstrations against revisions to both the Criminal Code and the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) law, the latter of which apparently was aimed at weakening the independent graft-busting body.

Dissent and Inclusion

In Javanese culture, there is no way to express opposition to a policy without being disrespectful of the leader. There is no institutional place for dissent. Outside the tent, there were no avenues open for opponents to effectively express their views on revisions to the Criminal Code and the KPK law that Joko had accepted. The difficulties that civil society groups face are cultural. By their very nature, civil rights and civil society groups are critical; they not only highlight gaps between Indonesia’s expressed ideals and its reality, they also embody values that are antithetical to the way political parties are organized. The patronage relationships that constitute Indonesian political parties conflict with the values and beliefs of civil society groups. Patronage relationships are inherently private and personal, rather than transparent and objective. They are exploitative and transactional, each participant – patron and client alike – using the other for their individual purposes. From justice advocates to anticorruption watchdogs and environment activists, civil society groups are all animated by universal standards and transparency in their domain of activity. These values are in direct opposition to the particularistic values and patronage relationships that underpin political parties, their financial lifeblood and the bases of power within them.  

Inside the tent, human rights and civil society groups would not only be disruptive, they would embody a repudiation of Indonesian politics and political parties. Political parties are no less anathema to civil society groups than the latter are to the former. So it is no wonder that resistance to the revisions of the aforementioned laws went to the streets. Hormat relationships give no space for the expression of overt dissent, whatever its source or form. Unless the political culture changes, protest and demonstrations are the only way for civil rights and other civil society groups to communicate their most fundamental frustrations and hopes. Joko is not averse to civil rights. Rather, he is averse to conflict, and the institutions he leads cannot yet accommodate dissent. 

Joko and the organization of politics

The “Jokowi phenomenon” cannot be understood without reference to Javanese culture. Joko has broken the monopoly of hormat cultural norms in politics, but for democracy to be further institutionalized, rukun norms and attitudes must be rooted deeper into Indonesian political culture and institutions. The phenomenon is just that: a phenomenon. It is indelibly marked by its association with the president personally. The traditional parties are, without a doubt, expecting a return to hormat norms in 2024, when Joko steps down. Whether his rukun politics can outlive his term in office depends on the extent to which they become the new normal in the next five years. It depends on the “rukun-ization” of political participation.

The secular political parties are organized according to hormat principles; Muslim parties are united through religious ideology. It is those principles that underpin how they recruit new members, how they are governed and how they are financed. At the top of each party organization stands a personality of considerable prestige and generally also wealth. This person is generally the party’s founder. And many of these personalities see their parties as dynastic enterprises. At different times and places, many have fought elections with and against each other. Beyond generalities, the specific policies each espouses depend on what election is being contested, and who its allies and candidates are in that particular election. They vary only slightly in their nationalism, their support for the three pillars of the economy – state, private and cooperative enterprise – and all support a multiethnic, secular, just and prosperous unitary state.

Old forms of organization do not adapt easily. Sociologists that study organizations have demonstrated that the primary mechanism for change in the way business in a society is organized is through the rise of new forms of organizing and the demise of old forms. Video streaming is supplanting TV, delivery apps are replacing some restaurants and stores, industrial tile production has replaced the artisanal roofing tile industry in Indonesia, and e-commerce is putting pressure on traditional retailers. In the competition for citizens’ votes, it is much more likely that Indonesia will generate new political parties with new forms of recruitment, governance and funding, than that the old political parties will adapt.

But a more likely scenario is that, like the media moguls before them, the new generation which is making its fortunes in the digital economy will form their own political parties. Like their media predecessors, they will have a prestigious personality at the helm. Also like their media predecessors, they will have direct access to the Indonesian public – through their mobile phones rather than television. Such parties will likely follow the more egalitarian/meritocratic norms of digital businesses in their membership, governance and financing methods. A path from hormat to rukun party organization might emerge. 

By representing the rukun side of Javanese culture so well and so thoroughly, Joko has demonstrated the power of its appeal. The hidden weakness in the president’s win is that it is a highly personalized phenomenon. He is unloved among the political elite, even by his own party’s boss. But Joko has provided the cultural resources for a more thoroughgoing Indonesian democracy. He has created a transitional moment. But this moment will only be transformative if it can be seized by new leaders who are equally committed to a rukun foundation for Indonesia’s democracy and follow in his footsteps by institutionalizing rukun norms in the daily activities of political parties, the administration of government and the conduct of electoral politics.


I have argued that the common way of understanding Joko is not very helpful.  It takes surface and observable events and attributes causes in a deracinated and misleading way. Joko’s presidency is at a critical juncture in the institutionalization of Indonesian democracy – it is the juncture between hormat and rukun modes of leadership, authority and participation. Will his engagement with the military and conservative Islam successfully reshape their relationship within a university state? It will be a difficult process, one in which all participants, including the general public, will evolve. If successful, new understandings of rukun principles fit for a modern democratic state, and a modern economy, will emerge.

Presently, Joko may be having more success with the populace at large than with Indonesia’s political party system and government apparatus. But expectations are rising. If the process that Joko has so successfully begun continues, it will undermine the premodern mentalities and relationships that underpin Indonesia’s traditional patronage and transactional politics, as well as those that buttress authority in fundamentalist, radical Islam. If successful, the revolusi mental will forever change the way that Indonesians think about their leaders and their own role in Indonesia’s democracy. This achievement is central to Joko’s presidency. It is of far greater importance than any of his policy achievements. Election turnout was up because Indonesians on both sides understood this.

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