IT doesn’t happen often enough but once in a while a politician stands out in a crowd. Mostly it is for the wrong reason: the man or woman makes a gaffe or does something outrageous. But every now and then, a politician gets much-deserved public attention because he/she can inspire and transform.
There’s no shortage of publicity-hungry politicians who made the news over the past week. In South Africa, there was angry and defiant Julius Malema who has locked horns with the country’s political establishment.
Then came Pakistan’s misguided minister Ghulam Ahmed Bilour who made world headlines by offering a $100,000 bounty for anyone who murdered the producer of the anti-Islam video which has provoked outrage in many parts of the Muslim world.
Not only did Bilour’s announcement reflect his own questionable state of mind and make Pakistan look even worse on the global stage (the declaration was nicely timed to coincide with President Asif Al Zardari’s trip to the United Nations), he also managed to further sully the image of Islam as a religion of peace and tolerance.
Perhaps Bilour could learn a thing or two from Britain’s Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg who has made a very public apology for breaking an election pledge not to raise tuition fees.
An edited musical version of the deputy prime minister’s video in which he says “I’m sorry” has gone viral on YouTube and other Internet sites. It is now being released as a charity single — and Clegg may have just managed to win a few sceptical voters by taking it all in his stride rather than lashing out at the people behind the video.
Which brings me nicely to my hero-of-the-moment Joko Widodo, the new mayor of Jakarta, who is shaking up Indonesian politics and giving the country’s small number of extremists a run for their money.
Widodo — known affectionately as Jokowi — is certainly both inspirational and transformative. In his signature checked shirt and wide grin, he bears a striking resemblance to US President Barack Obama. But that’s not what makes him such a class act.
Jokowi’s claim to fame goes deeper than that. First of all, he is a political outsider whose election comes as a surprise in a country where the political elite tends to stick together — and get all the key posts. This time, however, the party cadres and grass-roots did not support the candidate endorsed by the ruling elite.
By voting for the charismatic 51-year-old politician, Indonesians have clearly voiced rising public dissatisfaction with a political establishment which appears out of touch with the people’s aspirations.
Local analysts say that Indonesia now has a maturing electorate — one that is willing to look beyond party affiliations and choose a candidate based on personal merit.
Slick marketing by dedicated campaigners also did the trick by transforming the already charismatic mayor into a cool icon. Musical parodies supporting Jokowi appeared on YouTube, as did flash mobs by young fans. A cellphone game that featured a Jokowi character throwing tomatoes at corrupt leaders reached some 600,000 users.
The campaigners even sold checked shirts, similar to the ones worn by Jokowi and his deputy, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, for 70,000 rupiah ($7) each. The items became the team’s biggest fund-raiser and provided free advertising for the pair.
The new mayor has promised to deal with Jakarta’s many problems. He says the priority is to tackle corruption and red tape, widely recognised as key problems besetting Indonesia.
As one local newspaper pointed out, the voters’ choice in the Jakarta mayoral election has moved Indonesia a step closer to realising its much-heralded democratic and economic potential.
Jokowi’s popularity has prompted speculation that he may stand as a candidate in presidential elections in 2014 when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s 10-year mandate comes to an end.
More importantly even, defying the country’s religious hard-liners, Jokowi chose Basuki, an ethnic Chinese Christian, as his deputy. The duo’s victory is seen as a victory for tolerance and non-discrimination.
Interestingly, Basuki’s ethnic and religious background did not seem to bother a majority of the voters. As Iberamsjah, a political expert from the University of Indonesia, told an Indonesian newspaper: “If a non-Muslim can be accepted in the capital, he or she should be accepted across the country. Don’t be surprised if more good quality leaders from the minority groups emerge.”
Not all is rosy, however. Certain Muslim groups in the country have called Basuki an “infidel” and say he cannot become a leader in a Muslim country. But Indonesia is also home to sane religious leaders. Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisation the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) has said that religion and ethnicity should never be made an issue in a democratic society.
NU chairman Said Aqil Siradj told an Indonesian newspaper that religious and ethnic slurs are no longer suitable in the present-day context of democratic Indonesia.
Quoting Abul Abbas Taimiyah al-Harrani, also known as Ibnu Taimiyah, an Islamic philosopher from Turkey who died in 1328 after publishing the book Fiqh Khusyatah, the NU chairman said: “Justice brought forth by a non-Muslim is far better than injustice created by Muslims.”
Elaborating on this, Aqil Siradj said: “A good non-Muslim leader will act justly towards Muslims and a bad Muslim leader will act unjustly towards Muslims.” In a week marked by bloodshed and intolerance, Siradj’s words are a reassuring reminder that there are still wise men whose words can inspire.
Jokowi may or may not have a successful tenure as Jakarta’s mayor. But his election was a ray of hope in a bloody week. And if he is elected president of Indonesia in 2014, remember you read about him here first.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.