Field notes on the Jokowi campaign

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Running down a dirt track after Jokowi with journalists in West Java. (Photo: Ross Tapsell)

Much has been made by commentators of the inarticulateness and lack of key policy substance in the Jokowi-JK campaign. The campaign’s plummeting poll numbers have also been attributed to internal rivalry and fractious decision making at top levels in the campaign hierarchy. But what became clear to us very quickly when watching Jokowi campaign on the ground in East and West Java is how the more mundane issues of scheduling and lack of logistical coordination is both creating disaffection amongst supporters on the ground and hampering the campaign’s ability to get its messages into the news.

The Jokowi campaign, at least notionally, runs to a schedule. The problem is that the candidate, in reality, doesn’t. This creates problems on the ground when the organisers of events wait around for hours not knowing where Jokowi is, or whether he will show up. It depends on how things play out over the course of the day, with the candidate and his team seeming to make decisions on the run.

A glance at the rough daily run sheets will show that they are ambitious, to say the least. Whereas his opponent, Prabowo, on average limits his campaign travels to two cities a day (travelling by private jet and helicopter), Jokowi does a lot more land travel, wasting hours driving between locations hundreds of kilometres apart. More confusion ensues when Jokowi takes a chartered aircraft too small to accommodate more than a few journalists; most of the press pack can then spends hours on the road chasing after the candidate after he has flown on to the next town, as occurred in East Java last week.

It is not uncommon for events in the afternoon and evening to be cancelled altogether because the schedule is too tight, or simply unrealistic in the first place. In some cases this has meant disappointing hundreds of people who stand around for hours in the heat waiting to see their candidate. As one journalist said: ‘with every friend he makes by shaking their hand, he makes one enemy for a person who was waiting for him when he doesn’t show up’. Moreover, Jokowi risks annoying local politicians who are often the ones footing the bill for the events which end up being cancelled.

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This Malang crowd had to make do with a phone call from Jokowi after he cancelled his appearance. (Photo: Liam Gammon)

In the city of Malang, East Java, on Friday, a crowd waited for hours being tantalised by promises from event emcees that Jokowi was about to arrive in town speak to them. The rest of the day’s events, including a visit to a local mosque and market, had been struck off the schedule, but there was still hope that he could make it to the rally organised by the local PDI-P branch head (who is also the mayor of the nearby town of Batu). In the end, they had to make do with a phone call from Jokowi, who cancelled his appearance as he was still hundreds of kilometres away in another town. The mayor, who had paid for the whole thing, missed out on a photo opportunity with his party’s most popular figure.

Four days later, the Jokowi campaign was setting off for West Java province at 4:30pm from Jakarta, with the plan to break the fast with religious leaders in the city of Cilegon by 6:00pm. Jokowi’s car, assisted by a police escort, sped off and managed to break through Jakarta’s notorious afternoon traffic and onto the highway, but six buses carrying the media were too slow too keep up, and were left in gridlock. It was 7pm by the time the press buses made it to Cilegon, and as we arrived in the city we couldn’t find Jokowi. Buses were stopping on the side of the road and asking shop owners and residents ‘did you see where Jokowi went?’ At one point the media caravan were stuck in a small road where six buses had to do a u-turn.

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The scene that greeted the media when they arrived at the location of Jokowi’s fast-breaking event in West Java. (Photo: Ross Tapsell)

The misinformation coming through was incredible. “Jokowi has already left”, we were told, then to be told: “Jokowi is still here—he’s inside the mosque”. Finally, we made it, but the majority of the media had missed the event where Jokowi breaks the fast, and as such the event did not make the 7pm news which was scheduled by editors and journalists on the bus. Some local media did pick it up, and the ever-reliable-Jokowi-documenter Metro TV had a local camera crew there for images, but missed out on the live cross from the reporter. In any case, Metro TV’s audience is around 2% of the TV audience share.

Keep in mind that these are the media buses which the Jokowi-JK team wants to follow them. They arrange for the buses, food, a press room in Jakarta, and journalists who follow are largely all favourable to Jokowi’s campaign. Journalists weren’t sure whether they would return to Jakarta or move on to Sukabumi in West Java after Cilegon. This continues the approach to the media that Jokowi had as Jakarta governor, where one journalist told me [Ross] that ‘Only God and Jokowi know where we are going next’.

Jokowi’s message

During the legislative campaign, PDI-P forbade him to talk about policy. While his campaign team has created an extensive suite of programs for Jokowi and JK to take to the election, Jokowi is not mentioning these extensively on campaign events. Jokowi truly has faith that the people will know his message, and that they will ultimately vote for the best candidate—’seeing through campaign propaganda’, as he puts it. Yet he contradicts himself: when asked why his numbers were declining the polls he said only ‘because of the black campaign’ against him.

If that’s true—and almost everybody on the ground in the regions seems convinced the ‘black campaign’ is having a significant impact—then he’s not helping the situation. At an Islamic boarding school near Malang last week, Jokowi displayed his bizarre habit of drawing attention to slurs directed at him—denying that he was a non-Muslim, an ethnic Chinese, a Singaporean, or that he was going to cut teacher pay. Usually these sorts of rebuttals would be handled by campaign spokespeople, but the candidate has taken it upon himself to make it the basis of a de facto stump speech.

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Jokowi speaks to a NU crowd in a village outside Malang. (Photo: Liam Gammon)

Furthermore, Jokowi seems determined not to criticise his opponent, only recently making an oblique reference to Prabowo’s disturbing statements on direct elections. In Cilegon, West Java, after an informal meal Tuesday night, Jokowi had a brief interview with three foreign journalists, where he was asked directly if he should push harder on the issue of Prabowo’s possible anti-democratic credentials. Jokowi simply responded that the people know this, and he was confident of victory.

Later, in a larger press conference involving Indonesian journalists, Jokowi was asked what he thought of SBY’s Partai Demokrat choosing to support Gerindra earlier that day. Here was a chance to get on the front foot and attack. PD was the old government machine aligning itself with the old names that we have seen for years such as Prabowo and Bakrie. ‘Time for something new’, he could have said. But this front-foot attack approach has not at all been his style. His response was a simple “nggak apa-apa” orit doesn’t matter”. Answers were short and non-eventful. He seemed keen to get out of there, leaving the local political and supporter to conduct his own press conference. At one event in Jakarta he explained that he is up until 2am most evening, sometimes later. It shows. A few days out from the election, he looks and sounds completely exhausted.

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Jokowi holds an impromptu press conference in West Java.

Jokowi was supposed to then return to Jakarta to attend an event involving famous artists supporting him at Taman Ismail Marzuki (allegedly, of course—these things are never precisely clear). His cavalcade sped off at around 10:30pm. The media buses headed off to Sukabumi, where Jokowi was to arrive the next morning, having missed the key story that evening. Jokowi headed back to Jakarta, but arrived at 12:30am, and the event had either been cancelled or was too late for Jokowi to arrive. He went straight home.

Jokowi’s campaign is seemingly based around the idea that all he needs to do is press the flesh with the people. It completely revolves around the individual, rather than the party machine. This might work if you’re running for mayor of a country town, but it’s not going to cut it in a race for the presidency. The fundamentals of a successful campaign are showing up where you say you will, saying something newsworthy, and making sure that it makes the news. On this most basic principle, the Jokowi campaign is falling short rather spectacularly.

It goes without saying that his opponent has out-campaigned him. Prabowo’s campaign of course, is media rich, clear and sustained messages, and plays to its strengths.

There are still six days left before the election, and it’s entirely possible that Jokowi could still win, with Indonesians choosing the soft-spoken ‘man of the people’ over the aristocratic rabble-rouser he is running against. But if Indonesians place their trust in Jokowi on Wednesday, it will be in spite of the campaign he has run rather than because of it.

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Ross Tapsell is a Lecturer in the School of Culture, History and Language at the Australian National University. He researches the media in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Liam Gammon is a PhD candidate at the Department of Political and Social Change at the Australian National University.

Ross and Liam are on the ground in Indonesia during the 2014 presidential campaign. You can follow them on Twitter at @RossTapsell and @Gammonator, respectively.