Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo is the man of the moment in Indonesian politics. A furniture retailer by trade, two years ago he was a little known small town mayor in central Java. Today he is streets ahead of his nearest competitor in the opinion polls for July's presidential election. To understand Jokowi's meteoric rise, we need to go back to his early days in politics.

There was little hint of Jokowi's future trajectory in his first foray into politics, when he was elected mayor of Solo in 2005 with 37% of the vote. At the time, Jokowi was a political unknown compared to his running mate FX Hadi Rudyatmo, who was a local patron of the Democratic party of Struggle (PDI-P). Five years later, Jokowi won re-election with 90% of the vote, an eye catching result that helped him gain the PDI-P nomination for governorship of Jakarta.

Three factors account for Jokowi's extraordinary popularity in Solo.

First, he introduced health care and education schemes that catered to Solo's poor. After becoming mayor, Jokowi received many requests from constituents for help with their medical bills. At first he paid these bills using his discretionary funds as mayor, but over time realised this approach was unsustainable. Instead in 2008 he introduced a health insurance scheme for uninsured residents. Two years later, Jokowi introduced financial assistance for poor families to access education, as well as establishing fully funded government schools for the children of extremely poor families.

Take-up of both schemes was high: by 2011 each covered around half of Solo's residents. Each scheme was funded primarily from central government transfers to Solo under Indonesia's decentralisation arrangements. Jokowi made sure he gained credit for the programs, attending the launch of the healthcare and education financial assistance scheme and personally handing out membership cards.

Illustrating the popularity Jokowi gained from the schemes, the leader of a union for rickshaw drivers told the author in 2012 that 'Jokowi arrived as leader to look after us, the little people, (and therefore) we are not worried any more when we are sick, and also our kids are guaranteed to go to school.'

The second factor is Jokowi's commitment to participatory governance. In particular, he gained widespread acclaim both in Solo and more broadly for his consultative approach to relocating street vendors away from a park in central Solo, where they had built up a dirty semi-permanent squatter marketplace and were causing traffic chaos. Attempts to move street vendors in Indonesia often turn violent, as police and public-order personnel clash with traders determined to stay put. Jokowi avoided this by holding as many as 56 informal meetings with street vendors, often over lunch or dinner, to find a mutually acceptable solution. In the end, to convince the traders to move, he offered them a permanent marketplace in the southeast of the city, provided financial incentives including a six-month tax holiday and free of charge relocation, as well as establishing public transport links from the city centre to their new location.

Jokowi also made a habit of making local visits to talk to residents (a practice called 'mider projo'), as well as encouraging community participation in the city's planning process. This approach resonated with a local cultural idiom of 'nguwongke uwong' (treating a person as a person) and helped Jokowi cement the 'man of the people' image that has been one of his great electoral assets. 

This persona was further reinforced by a third factor, a non-elitist and non-bureaucratic style of leadership.

In Solo, Jokowi involved himself directly in the implementation of his health and education programs, and intensified communication between the mayor and the people, including personally receiving public complaints about government services. This style of leadership made a particular impression on the average person in the street in Solo, which is the residence of one of the Javanese royal courts. Court culture envisages a strict hierarchy between elites and the masses, bound together by patronage ties. Against this elitist background, Jokowi's community engagement stood out.

Not everyone was convinced by Jokowi's methods in Solo. A senior NGO activist suggested Solo looked better viewed from a distance, whereas on close examination its shortcomings are evident. He questioned whether Jokowi's style of governing had really transformed patrimonial relations between the state and society, or was just a new populist way for elites to retain control in a democratic context. 

Other Solo resident expressed concerns that the reforms Jokowi introduced would not endure after left Solo to become governor of Jakarta. A future mayor could easily revoke his health and education reforms because he only enacted them through a mayoral decree rather than securing parliamentary agreement to enact a local regulation. Some street vendors have also complained that they have lost customers and income following their relocation.

More broadly, Jokowi has also been criticised on the grounds that his policies in Solo did not transform the socio-economic conditions of Solo's poor.

Despite these criticisms, Jokowi's popularity in Solo endures. On the day he was sworn in as Jakarta Governor, various groups in Solo, from market vendors to school children to bureaucrats, expressed their gratitude to Jokowi for his legacy of policies favouring the little person. Jokowi's attention-grabbing leadership in Jakarta and his status as presidential frontrunner suggest his approach to governing has achieved broader resonance in Indonesia. His political future looks bright.

Photo by Flickr user Eduardo M. C.