In 2005, Mayor Joko Widodo ("Jokowi") campaigned on the slogan Berseri Tanpa Korupsi, "Beauty Without Corruption," pledging to revitalize Surakarta, Indonesia, a city of half a million, as a clean, safe place to live and work. But the city's ubiquitous street vendors typified the kinds of problems he would face as mayor. With insufficient opportunities for regular employment, nearly 6,000 residents eked out a living by selling everything from food to second-hand goods along Solo's roadways. Established shopkeepers lost business and neighbors complained about the loss of open space, road congestion, and litter in public parks and on sidewalks.
Other pressing issues festered as well. Traditional markets, where traders sold fresh produce or wares in simple stalls, had long resisted being converted into modern shopping centers .Citizens complained of lengthy delays in securing routine government documents like business permits. Many poor citizens lived in substandard housing, and did not have access to services.
Solo -- as Surakarta is known because of the river running through it -- was the most densely populated city in central Java in 2005. Most of its citizens were Javanese, with a minority of Chinese-Indonesians. Nearly 73 percent were Muslim and about 25 percent were Christian. The remainder followed Buddhism or Hinduism. In the mix of cultures and religions, tensions often ran high. Disparities between poor and wealthy residents exacerbated the city's tensions, with 16 percent living below the poverty line.
Civil unrest had earned Solo the dubious title of sumbu pendek -- the city with a "short fuse." In 1998 -- as the effects of the Asian financial crisis deepened -- crowds protesting rising oil prices, food shortages, and unemployment destroyed or damaged 330 businesses and 900 vehicles, most belonging to the ethnic Chinese minority. In 1999, violence flared again when supporters of the losing presidential candidate burned down Solo's City Hall. An International Crisis Group report also traced roots of the militant Islamic organization Jemaah Islamiyah -- a Southeast Asian group with links to al Qaeda -- to Solo.
When Jokowi took office in 2005, a focal point of complaint was Banjarsari, a park with a monument commemorating the struggle for independence from Dutch rule, where street vendors crowded walkways and roads. In 2004, citizens who lived near the park refused to celebrate Independence Day as part of a high-profile protest against the street vendors' presence. (The vendors had proliferated after the 1997 Asian financial crisis.) For their part, street vendors complained that city police and government officials abused them, that they often paid illegal fees to avoid being evicted, and that they were in constant danger of losing their places of business. Although the traditional markets were vulnerable to fire, sellers organized against renovations or rehabilitations, fearing that the government would convert the traditional markets into malls and charge higher rents.
The city's inaction rendered other aspects of business and day-to-day life cumbersome. Business owners had to wait for months to obtain business permits or licenses. Because no central department handled permits, applicants had to frequent multiple offices to get the necessary approvals and bribe civil servants to expedite applications. Similar problems vexed citizens who tried to get government-issued identity cards.
Squatter settlements along the river were another challenge. Local laws prohibited building along the river because of habitual heavy rains and the danger of floods; but in 2005, about 2,000 temporary houses with 8,000 inhabitants lined the riverbank. In addition, each of the city's 51 neighborhoods had a large number of temporary and substandard housing, lacking access to sanitation, drainage and water facilities, and were prone to fires. Poor residents could not afford health or education services either.