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Indonesia presidential candidate Joko "Jokowi" Widodo smiles during an interview with Reuters in Jakarta

Congratulations to Indonesia

ASIA MEDIA STAFF WRITES – Congratulations are in order for Joko Widodo, the governor of the massive metropolis of Jakarta.

After an arduous nationwide campaign against a tough, determined and extremely well-financed opponent, this personally modest but overly reformist former furniture salesman won by a margin of four-to-five percentage points.  In Indonesia they are calling this result “close” but in America few presidential elections claims larger margins and some (George W. Bush’s in 2000, John F. Kennedy in 1960) were decided much, much smaller ones.

But in these and all other U.S. examples, the transition to the new government was notably peaceful.  No tanks escaped from the barn, though in 2000 the cannon roar of a lawsuit detonated at the U.S. Supreme Court. In Indonesia, a lawsuit by the losing camp – led by a former, still-notorious military man – would be in bad taste and poor sportsmanship; but it would be far preferable to a resort to a Thai-like coup.

Patience from the winning camp would be a virtue too.  It should not be long before it assumes power. But what it will do with that power is the big question.  Jokowi himself is a bit of a magical mystery man. He offers little conventional charisma but his good-government persona conveys quite a positive aura.  Said to be incorruptible, the pragmatic politician now faces a monumental challenge in moving the world’s fourth most populous nation forward.  It will require tremendous political and leadership talent, and support and even love from the Indonesian people.

This country of many thousands of islands, a former debilitating Dutch colonization and countless thorny public-policy problems bodes to become not only the historic leader of a resurgent Southeast Asia but one of the most important nations globally.  About 90% or so of its total population (about 250 million — compared to U.S. 319 million, Russia 143 million) is Muslim. This makes Indonesia home to more people of the Islamic faith than any country in the world (Egypt, by comparison, has well less than half as many Muslims).

For the U.S., the challenge in its so-called ‘pivot to Asia’ is to regard Jakarta as much more than a pit stop.  To this effect, U.S. diplomacy needs to put some distance between itself and its policy mate and close ally Australia, whose prime minister sometimes doesn’t seem to get the idea that the world is now a 21st century deal.  Alliances that look like white boys’ clubs will not win many hearts and minds in Indonesia (or anywhere else in Asia, actually).  The U.S. would have an ace card to play in Obama, but the president is bogged down in the Middle East, the Ukraine and the tribal territories of John Boehner, the House Republican leader with the unenviable job of having to tom-tom the Tea Party.

Sometimes the much-trumpeted American ‘pivot to Asia’ seems no more than a misconceived policy divot.

Finally, Asia Media offers its sincerest congratulations to the people of Indonesia. You have conducted a process that has produced a successor president without excessive tumult or corruption. By rough American election standards, at least, your election drama played out well with the parameters of the internationally acceptable. We pray the losers will not sour your nation’s considerable achievement with spoilsport tactics, or worse.

America has survived bad presidents and thrived with good ones. Jokowi, whom Asia Media explicitly endorsed on 27 June in this space, may prove transformative or he may prove tragically incompetent.  One just doesn’t know.  What one does know is that he is the clear choice of the Indonesia people.  For that, he deserves considerable respect, from abroad as well as at home, as well as a decent “political honeymoon” – a good amount of time to pick a proper cabinet, put out his policies and get his feet planted firmly in the country’s tricky political soil.  Any miracles he is able to produce from that surely won’t make their appearance overnight.

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