Leapfrogging from a provincial furniture factory to become President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo was greeted by a Time magazine cover hailing him as ‘A New Hope’ for the world. He swept into office in 2014 on a wave of promises—clean government, a crackdown on corruption, a ‘slim’ parliamentary coalition with minimal horse-trading, improved economic growth and infrastructure, better access to basic health and education support. Tempo, the flagship Jakarta weekly, celebrated with a cover photo of Jokowi moshing in their editorial office even before the vote was officially counted. Fifteen years on from the overthrow of the Suharto dictatorship amid the turmoil of the 1998 Asian Financial Crisis, it seemed that the grip of the tycoons and generals who had cemented their power over Indonesia under Suharto’s New Order might finally be weakening. Symbolically, Jokowi’s defeated opponent in 2014 was Suharto’s son-in-law Prabowo, a millionaire general responsible for serial atrocities in East Timor and for repressing the democracy movement in 1997–98. Five years later, however, after increasing his majority in the 2019 elections, Jokowi appointed Prabowo as Minister of Defence, in a cabinet that boasted a notorious police chief as Interior Minister, another general as Minister of Religion, and tech and media barons overseeing education and the nationalized industries.

Numerous books about Jokowi have been published in Indonesia, but most veer towards hagiography; his (ghost-written) autobiography is, naturally, self-satisfied. Ben Bland’s Man of Contradictions is the first English-language biography to appear. Bland, a former reporter for the Financial Times, later foreign-policy analyst and the director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Lowy Institute in Australia, is critical of this puffery. But he also declines to see Jokowi as ‘a man who has fallen from grace and sold out the promise of reform’, viewing him instead as an ‘enigmatic figure’, a bundle of contradictions trapped by the historical contradictions of the country he rules—‘a nation that charms, confuses, and confounds in equal measure’. In other words, rather than simply telling Jokowi’s life story, Bland wants ‘to use the incredible tale of the small-town furniture maker turned world leader [sic] to shed some light on the story of Indonesia’, so as to understand where Jokowi and this vast archipelagic nation are heading. This is quite a tall order to complete in less than two hundred pages. But Man of Contradictions can also tell us something about mainstream Western ideas of what is ‘wrong’ with our country.

Hashing out the media clichés—‘a simple boy from a simple family’, ‘the underdog challenger’ who grew up in ‘a riverside shack’, yet could ‘electrify an election campaign without saying much’—Bland retains some of the conventional guff about Jokowi’s modest upbringing. But he also provides enough evidence to dismiss it. While Jokowi may not have had the personal wealth of Indonesia’s Top Hundred business and political elites, he was by no means destitute. He was born in 1961 to a struggling middle-class family in the provincial city of Solo (Surakarta), central Java—his father made a living selling bamboo furniture. Jokowi took a degree in forestry at the Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta and worked in his uncle’s furniture factory before setting up his own in the late 1980s. He proved adept at extracting loans from the Suharto government’s small-business programme, and by 1991 was a fixture on the international furniture expo circuit. By the time friends in Solo were canvassing him as a possible candidate for the 2005 mayoral elections, Jokowi was a dollar millionaire—a wealthy ‘emerging patrician’, in Bland’s phrase—while his wife had opened a large wedding hall, catering to the city’s aspirational business class, and their children were studying in Singapore. Two years later Jokowi was setting up a timber venture in financial cahoots with ex-military tycoon Luhut Pandjaitan, a former us-trained commander of Suharto’s ‘Hunter Killer’ Special Forces in East Timor, now expanding his mining and forestry interests. Luhut would later be President Jokowi’s Chief of Staff, with special responsibility for trade, investment, mining and energy.

Bland’s account offers some antidote to media portrayals and common perceptions—crafted and honed for years by Jokowi—of the hardships the president had to overcome on the way to the top. He also rightly stresses that Jokowi had the advantage of looking like a fresh outsider in a country where politics have for decades been dominated by the families of oligarchs and generals, presiding over a civil service notorious for absenteeism and neglect of its duties. In Solo, Jokowi made a practice of blusukan, a Javanese word for impromptu spot checks—descending with his retinue upon a slum neighbourhood or street market to listen to the problems of the wong cilik—‘small folk’—and set them right. ‘Pencil-slim, word-shy’, with his trade-mark exclamation of kerja, kerja, kerja! (‘work, work, work!’), Jokowi maximized his persona as a popular man-of-action during his seven years as Mayor of Solo. Bland shows that, rather than reforming the system at City Hall or restructuring the bureaucracy, Jokowi pushed persistently for concrete, incremental improvements. For all its limitations, this was a record that paid electoral dividends. It would be lionized by the media in his 2012 campaign for Governor of Jakarta and his leap to the presidency two years later. Importantly, however, Jokowi’s talent for blusukan was matched by his ability to corral the support of local and national elites through his flair for what Bland calls ‘retail politics’; it was they who supplied him with the cash and contacts that drive electoral politics in post-Suharto Indonesia. Cameron Hume, the us Ambassador to Indonesia, was another fan of the ‘dynamic and immensely popular’ mayor. Bland comments drily: ‘This knack for charming foreigners would prove indispensable to Jokowi later in his career.’

The methods Jokowi honed in Solo had a certain folksy charm and worked relatively well in the early days at provincial-city level. They remained his default procedure when he moved to the national stage. But however carefully stage-managed, blusukan was inoperable as a mode for managing a population approaching 300 million, or steering a federal state of three dozen ministries, plus hundreds of directly elected governors, mayors and regents. Already overstretched in Jakarta, Jokowi’s can-do approach crumbled in national politics. Today, with a bloated coalition around him, he can no longer play the card of the outsider. ‘The very facets of his personality that made him such a good city mayor would, in the end, limit his ability to pull off the radical changes Indonesia needs’, writes Bland. The contradictions between Jokowi’s man-of-the-people image and his reliance on elite backers became ‘ever more apparent’: he had no plan for how to manage the ranks of ‘oleaginous politicos, tycoons and generals that lined up around him’ as they sensed power shifting to a new leader. Man of Contradictions has few illusions about Jokowi, describing him as a ‘pragmatic’ figure, who has ‘rarely shown much outward ambition or interest in politics’, and ‘often makes policy on the hoof, without any solid analytical basis’. The reason for such myopia, according to Bland, lies in his background: ‘if you want to understand Jokowi the politician, you must understand Jokowi the furniture maker’. His book attempts to use this dictum as a key to unlock the meaning of Jokowi’s decade in office for Indonesia’s economy, democracy and foreign policy.

Predictably, as a man from the ft, Bland diagnoses Indonesia as suffering from a legacy of ‘post-colonial hostility to economic liberalism’, whose symptoms include ‘a deep historical scepticism’ towards Western notions of free trade. The country’s besetting sin is protectionism, for which Sukarno’s rhetoric of self-reliance and the family basis of the traditional economy share the blame. Bland had originally hoped Jokowi would be a liberal economic reformer who would finally ‘set the good ship Indonesia on the correct course’. He confesses his disappointment. ‘Protectionism runs much deeper in Indonesia than many economists like to admit’, he insists, arguing that in this too Indonesians are contradictory, if not hypocritical—while complaining about the import of foreign beef, they prefer it to domestic meat. Jokowi’s quest for foreign investment but rhetoric of self-sufficiency are expressions of this national pathology. Bland supplies a long list of questionable infrastructure projects, stymied by lack of coordination across government departments and exacerbated by Jokowi’s ‘ad hoc leadership style’.

Tensions between electoral democracy and ‘illiberalism’ are framed in a similar argument. While touching on the president’s meddling with the Corruption Eradication Commission (kpk), and the growing number of military men he has rewarded, Man of Contradictions sees the high-profile downfall of Ahok, Jokowi’s successor as Governor of Jakarta, ousted under Islamist pressure, as the main evidence for a ‘rising tide of authoritarianism’. In Bland’s view, Ahok’s ‘uncompromising but effective approach’ to running Jakarta put him on course to be re-elected in 2017 (in fact, he had not been elected in the first place, simply sliding into the position of governor when Jokowi jumped to the presidency). But when Ahok—a Chinese Christian in a Muslim-majority city—made a casual reference to the Koran, the issue was swiftly exploited by his opponents. As anti-Ahok protests swelled in December 2016, Jokowi himself joined them, to ‘defuse’ the situation. In abandoning his former ally, Bland argues, Jokowi gave credence to the demands of ‘intolerant hardliners’—a defeat for democracy and pluralism in Indonesia. Ahok was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for blasphemy. But this is not to say the furniture-maker himself has become an ideological authoritarian: Jokowi has never had a political philosophy, Bland avers. He has simply been shaped by the winds that swirl around him.