Roanne van Voorst
Jokowi's visit to the riverside slum Ranto Poltak Tambunan
Thirty-five year old Muhammad works as a garbage collector in a Jakarta slum. Seven days a week, from early morning until late in the evening, he can be seen walking through his neighbourhood, head bowed, as he looks for plastic, bottle caps and metal or aluminium cans to sell to a small recycling company nearby.
Muhammad feels tired all the time. He feels tired from working long days, and even more tired from worrying. The riverbank settlement where Muhammad lives is not only highly flood-prone; it is also threatened by eviction. As part of an enormous flood-prevention program, the Jakarta administration plans to deepen and widen the Ciliwung River and clear its banks of settlements. To make way for this project, 70,000 slum dwellers will be evicted over the coming years. Those who will be displaced or forcibly resettled include most – if not all – of the people living in Muhammad’s neighbourhood.
Muhammad fears he will become homeless if the plan goes ahead. If this happens, his financial problems will increase. ‘I am always worried about floods,’ he says, ‘they damage my house and my assets; the dirty water also makes us ill. But I am even more worried about what will happen to me if we are evicted. Politicians say that it is too dangerous to live here. But they know just as well as I do, that poor people can’t afford a house in a better neighbourhood. If they’d ask me for my opinion, I would tell them that I rather have a flood-prone house than no house at all. But then again: what political party would ever take into account the opinion of a garbage collector?’
Trust in Jokowi
Muhammad’s own answer to his question is a firm ‘none’. And most of his neighbours agree. Their distrust is the product of years of disadvantage and discrimination that slum dwellers have experienced at the hands of their political leaders and institutions. Several times a year, the houses of Muhammad and his neighbours are inundated by contaminated river water, damaging the houses and making them ill. But the government offers no social safety net to support them. Residents have no personal insurance to help them recover from floods, nor can they afford to save large sums of money as a buffer to be used in times of disaster.
The political distrust resulting from their marginalisation is reflected in the slum dwellers’ political behaviour. Most of them have not voted for years. ‘The Indonesian government does not care for poor people like us,’ they would typically tell me, ‘so why would we care about them?’ ‘In fact,’ they add, ‘politicians cause us more problems than we already have.’
There is, however, one exception. Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, the presidential candidate for the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), is widely praised for his pro-poor attitude. While other politicians are distrusted, Jokowi has brought hope and optimism. On Muhammad’s Facebook page – even in Jakarta’s slums, people use Facebook – he does not speak of his problems, his political scepticism, or his concerns. Instead, he appears as a hopeful citizen, a political activist and particularly, as a huge fan of Jokowi. His profile picture doesn’t show his own face, it shows a photo of Jokowi. In capital letters next to that photo, Muhammad proclaims that ‘Jokowi is our hope for a new Indonesia’. With Jokowi at the helm, he proclaims, Indonesia will become ‘Great! Smart! New! A country without corruption!’
Muhammad was never engaged in politics before. But Jokowi is different. In his eyes, Jokowi is trustworthy; Jokowi cares for the poor; Jokowi cannot be compared to any of the other politicians Indonesia has to offer.
Muhammad’s view is widely shared. Twenty-seven year old Abdul, who once told me that ‘all politicians do is lie; never believe a thing that any politician says’, now supports Jokowi, who he says ‘will bring equity in justice and prosperity for all’. Nineteen-year-old Yati agrees. She may have burst into tears talking about the upcoming eviction, screaming that ‘the politicians of Indonesia mistreat us. I think they are all bastards!’ but she, too, makes an exception for Jokowi, who she describes as ‘kind, wise, and cares for the poor.’
The popularity of Jokowi begs two questions – one about his popularity among Jakarta’s poorest, and the second about the April legislative elections, in which PDIP, the party that has nominated Jokowi as its presidential candidate, failed to perform.
Keen to learn the reasons behind Jokowi’s popularity, I asked the people of Muhammad’s community why they believed Jokowi was different from other politicians, and what that might mean for their lives. Did they truly believe that he would be able to improve conditions in the neighbourhood? Had he perhaps promised them that he would call off the eviction? Their answers indicated they were nothing if not realistic. Yes, Jokowi was different, and yes, he had made them promises. But, no, they did not believe that these promises would materialise, and neither did they believe that he would be able to improve their lives.
Jokowi, I learned, had visited the neighbourhood as part of his political campaign. He spoke to the inhabitants through a microphone, announcing that he would try his best to save the neighbourhood from evictions. The slum dwellers understood that there was little chance that he’d stick to this promise. But, they said, that isn’t the point. ‘The eviction will still be carried out,’ said Yati, ‘because Jokowi is a politician and politicians do this kind of thing all the time.’ Even if Jokowi himself has good intentions,’ Abdul explained to me, ‘he will still cooperate with other politicians, so ultimately he can’t do what he promises.’
Clearly, it is not the validity of his promises that makes Jokowi so popular in this riverbank community. The only thing that sets him aside from all his predecessors is his visit. Unlike other politicians, he took the time to speak to slum dwellers, and even shook their hands.
Talking with the most vulnerable in society, shaking their hands, listening to their stories and sympathising with them may not seem grand deeds for a politician likely to sign off on their eviction. But for these residents, it symbolises enormous change in the political climate. From being completely neglected, they are now seen and recognised, if for no other reason, at least as part of a potential voting bloc.
…. but not as president
If Jokowi is so popular among the poor, then why didn’t they vote en masse for PDIP? Pundits have argued that voters didn’t understand the distinction between the presidential and legislative elections, or that local PDIP candidates didn’t make enough of Jokowi’s candidacy. Some have even argued that Jokowi’s popularity is overblown.
None of these theories rang true for this community. Jakarta’s river-dwellers well understood the dual nature of the elections and the fact that Jokowi was standing for PDIP. Indeed, some voters did vote for their local PDIP candidate precisely because of the party’s affiliation with Jokowi. Others voted for different parties and yet others abstained. If the residents of the slum so love Jokowi, then why not use their voting power to set him on the path to power?
The answer to this question indicates that slum dwellers have a voting strategy. They think that Jokowi is indeed the best candidate to become Indonesia’s new president, but that he wouldn’t have the power to change the political system. Instead, they fear, the political system would change him. Abdul, for example, worries that Jokowi’s ‘kindness will be exploited by his political rivals’ as soon as he became President. ‘He is not very assertive, you know. Other politicians will probably overrule him if he has to cooperate with them.’ Muhammad writes in a Facebook message that while Jokowi has good intentions regarding poor people, his political colleagues will certainly not: ‘He is different than other politicians, also those in PDI-P. They do not care what will happen to us. Only Jokowi cares – but what can he do, all by himself?’
According to the river people, it’s better if Jokowi remains Jakarta’s governor. In that way, he would remain closer to them, and could protect them from untrustworthy politicians. Explaining why she hadn’t voted for the local PDIP candidate, one slum dweller said, ‘Jokowi’s period as a governor can’t be over. If he became president, he will betray us, forget about us.’ She voted for another party not because she supported it, but because she felt she could not vote for Jokowi but still wanted to exercise her right to vote. Another resident also voted for another even though she declares herself a fan of Jokowi. ‘If Jokowi becomes President, definitely [Jakarta Deputy Governor] Ahok will become the Governor of Jakarta. He doesn’t care about us. He does not even want to talk to us. If this happens, I am afraid for my future and for the future of my neighbours.’ Thus while many Indonesians may hope that Jokowi will become president, for Muhammad and his neighbours, the hope is that Jokowi will lose the election – and visit their neighbourhood again.
Roanne van Voorst (firstname.lastname@example.org) recently completed her PhD at the University of Amsterdam. Her dissertation was a study of a Jakarta riverside community and its response to the ever-present threat of flood.