Democracy Lab

The City with a Short Fuse

How a shrewd politician defused ethnic tension and improved public services in one of Indonesia’s most dysfunctional cities.

Note: This article is an abridged version of a longer historical case study produced by Innovations for Successful Societies, a research program at Princeton University.

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.

Jokowi's challenges included his own lack of political experience. In 2005, a national decentralization program mandated elections for local government offices; Jokowi, a Muslim and a prominent member of the city's business community, sought to become a candidate of the Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P), a prominent left-leaning political organization with widespread support in Solo. He aligned with F.X. Hadi Rudyatmo, a Christian, to secure his party's nomination for mayor. Rudyatmo, who headed the PDI-P in Solo, was a grassroots organizer and a seasoned politician. The two won with 36 percent of the votes, more than the 30 percent required to avoid a runoff.

Upon taking office, building support both inside and outside the government was crucial. Political infighting had undermined the efforts of Jokowi's predecessor. But the new team faced high public expectations as Solo's first democratically elected mayor and vice mayor. The PDI-P's political base included poor and marginalized groups, and the challenge for Jokowi and Rudyatmo was to address their needs for services and employment while facilitating the business and investment climate.

Achieving real gains required Jokowi to deepen his understanding of the city's diverse interest groups, and so he reached out to them. The mayor convened City Hall meetings and other events to encourage citizens to share their views about what the government was doing. "He got ideas from the community," said Ahyani Sidik, a prominent city official. "This is how the ideas got generated: From the stakeholders in the city."

Jokowi knew the value of a strong public image. Having built substantial wealth from his importing business, Jokowi donated his mayoral salary to the city. He used his predecessor's official car rather than buying a new one, and he flew economy class. The mayor's approach set a tone of prioritizing public service over personal gain.

To encourage better performance, Jokowi created training opportunities for civil servants and encouraged them to study how regional neighbors such as Singapore or South Korea dealt with street vendor management, tourism services, and other issues that confronted Solo. He pressed for greater collaboration among city officials. He held meetings with all department heads at his office, and followed up regularly on decisions made at meetings. He visited different municipal offices unannounced -- keeping civil servants on their toes -- and held monthly evaluations. The mayor and the vice-mayor often visited neighborhoods in order to hear recommendations and complaints from citizens. Jokowi also held regular meetings at his residence, a rare gesture for a top Indonesian official.

Jokowi believed that the city's cultural heritage was a significant but largely unexploited asset. With hundreds of performing arts schools teaching traditional dance, music, and theater, Solo could attract much-needed tourism and growth. A focus on heritage could inspire pride and attract support from diverse social and economic groups that had often come into conflict in the past. 

Stimulating the local economy and boosting employment were Jokowi's bottom-line aims, but he was aware that first he had to tackle the city's immediate problems. Soon after taking office, Jokowi announced his plan to move the vendors from the Banjarsari Park area by 17 August, Independence Day. But street vendors protested strongly and openly, and threatened that the government would have to use force to evict them.

Recognizing the potential for serious repercussions, Jokowi quickly shifted gears. He reached out to street vendors representatives willing to work out a nonviolent solution. He held more than 50 lunch meetings with representatives and listened to the vendors' concerns. Jokowi eventually pledged to build appropriate facilities for street vendors to relocate, to provide public transport and access, and to publicize the location. He also offered incentives to vendors who agreed to move: free carts and umbrella tents or kiosks, education and training, affordable loans to survive in the new market, and a tax exemption for the first six months. The two sides reached an agreement in December 2005; design and construction of the first new marketplace started the following month.

In mid-2006, the market was ready, and Jokowi led a celebratory procession marking the relocation from Banjarsari to the new site. Akbarudin Arif, from an NGO network for marginalized groups, Kompip, attributed the successful resolution to Jokowi's openness to dialogue: "It was a dramatic situation, but he was able to replace a thousand vendors in peace. This has never happened in any city in Indonesia. There was no bloodshed or violence. It was also the first time that Jokowi sensed people's acceptance. After this, he continued the dialogue with citizens and believed that his style could work." The amicable Banjarsari resettlement helped ease the relocation of other street vendor sites. Many vendors reported higher profits because of improved facilities and services. The project received approval from local NGOs because it gave vendors security of livelihood from local officials threatening to sweep them off the streets. Still, some relocation efforts went poorly, and a number of street vendors complained that they lost business.

Jokowi also took steps to upgrade traditional markets to meet safety and sanitation regulations, assuring the market sellers that the city would pay renovation costs and not raise rents. And in an important concession, he worked with the city council to ban construction of modern malls within 500 meters of traditional markets. (The city later passed an act to preserve and protect traditional markets, acknowledging their contribution to the cultural heritage and character of Solo.)

But bringing more jobs to Solo required efforts aimed at the broader business community. Jokowi then turned to inefficiencies in city offices that issued business licenses and permits.  Borrowing an idea implemented in other areas of Indonesia, in December 2005, Solo inaugurated a "One Stop Service" scheme, creating offices that provided 28 different services, such as administering construction permits, tourist guide licenses, industrial business permits, franchise permits, and shopping center permissions. Customers went to a single building where civil servants were available to assist them. Applicants had to fill out only one form for most services, and once approved, could pick up their permits within six days. The service also allowed dissatisfied customers to file grievances at a help desk. Jokowi took a personal interest in making sure that employees followed procedures and did not solicit or accept bribes.

In tandem with helping businesses expand, Jokowi sought to address concerns of the poorest residents. He worked with the Department of Community, Women and Children Empowerment, and Family Planning to help renovate substandard housing and move squatters to safer locations. The department also provided training and employment opportunities for those living in squatter communities, focusing in particular on women. While there was no violence, in 2009, residents of one squatter settlement demonstrated against the government, saying they were being forced to relocate in order to benefit businesses. Other complaints arose when the government relocated poor residents to distant suburbs, making it difficult to reach city and public services because of poor infrastructure and public transportation. (During his second term, Jokowi focused on projects to improve transportation infrastructure, connecting remote areas with the city center and surrounding provinces.)

The mayor's office sought to improve access to health services as well. Jokowi began to work with Solo's Department of Health to supplement the national healthcare policy for the poor, and -- after evaluating healthcare plans in other Indonesian cities -- the department issued insurance cards to residents who met 14 agency-set standards of poverty related to housing, access to utilities, nutrition, occupation and income, education, and savings. The department solicited the help of Solo's active NGO community to register residents for the free health services. But Solo's healthcare support program did not reach all of the city's poor, many of whom did not understand the registration process or did not believe that they would actually get the service. (Health officials continued to work with NGOs and hold awareness workshops at community health centers and in neighborhoods annually.)

Jokowi also rebranded Solo as an arts and culture destination. He worked with the Bureau of Culture and Tourism in cooperation with performing arts schools and citizen committees to organize festivals involving traditional music, performances, batik, and other cultural events. In 2009, Jokowi launched a new marketing campaign to publicize a positive image of the city: "Solo's Future is Solo's Past." He invited national media outlets to visit and report on the city's growth and development. Delegations from Solo also marketed the city abroad, sending groups to attend festivals in Singapore, Malaysia, and Australia.

But Solo's diversity presented special challenges; an emphasis on arts and culture could easily alienate conservative Islamic groups. Jokowi met and spoke directly with religious and ethnic leaders to address their concerns. He maintained close ties with Javanese Muslim communities, regularly joining religious studies at local mosques and Islamic centers and using the opportunity to discuss government policy with community leaders and students. Religious leaders helped the mayor start the Religious Peace Forum, an inclusive discussion group that met regularly to consider interfaith issues.

Jokowi also took other steps to keep potential unrest under control. He offered economic opportunities in violence-prone areas to the unemployed, youth, and other vulnerable citizens in order to deflect recruitment by extremist groups. Programs offered training in vocations such as automotive repair and tailoring, and also included loans for small businesses. The administration moved quickly when signs of instability arose, such as in February 2011, when riots broke out in another city in central Java, or in September 2011, when a bomb destroyed a Protestant church. (Immediately after the bombing, Jokowi spoke on the radio stressing that Solo was a safe city, and that the bombing did not mean that there was conflict between the city's Christians and Muslims.)

As his first term came to an end in June 2010, Jokowi won praise for his reforms. Solo had earned a reputation as one of Indonesia's most business-friendly cities. Favorable publicity and cultural events attracted tourists, boosted the local economy, and paved the way for larger investments. In 2010, citizens endorsed the reforms when they re-elected Jokowi and Rudyatmo for a second term.

Despite Solo's successes, problems remained. The city's overall economic and social indicators showed little improvement. Jokowi angered street vendors by tightening regulations preventing them from expanding to new areas. Vendors felt they had a right to do business wherever they chose if the city could not adequately provide jobs. Arif of Kompip suggested that the policy had contributed to the rising poverty in Solo: "If the government tries to close informal sectors, and if people lose jobs because of [vendor] relocations, then the poverty numbers rise."

Critics found fault with other aspects of Jokowi's administration, such as that he did not tackle corruption effectively. Residents also worried whether reforms were sustainable after 2015, when Jokowi's second term would end, fearing that the changes he initiated might not continue under his successor.

Jokowi's adeptness in balancing the needs and concerns of constituents, and forming coalitions offers lessons for other cities with similar issues. His personal and open approach allowed him to build trust and support, giving him the ability to bring about changes. Unlike his predecessors, he kept the door open for street and traditional market vendors, listened to their concerns, and negotiated a solution acceptable to both parties. As he noted: "Show up, and you solve 90 percent of the problem. Then we follow through with the other 10 percent." After tackling hot-button issues, the mayor focused on solving deeper problems of affordable housing, healthcare, and economic growth. He also took advantage of Solo's competitive advantage in arts and culture, and marketed the city in Indonesia and abroad. Jokowi's strategies paid off and contributed to Solo's growth and positive image worldwide.

ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The Great Ballot Box Caper

How do you conduct an election when contending political forces don't agree on the rules? An unlikely study in compromise from Northern Ireland in 2005.

Note: This article is an abridged version of a longer historical case study produced by Innovations for Successful Societies, a research program at Princeton University.

Violence throughout Northern Ireland abated significantly with the 1998 signing of the Good Friday Agreement, in which Protestant Unionists and Catholic Nationalists pledged to use peaceful means to seek compromise on Northern Ireland's status. Despite the agreement, sharp divisions left the city of Londonderry, called "Derry" by Nationalists, susceptible to violence. Site of the 1972 Bloody Sunday events, Derry had a long history of sectarian strife, particularly during elections.

The trigger for violence on election days was always the same: The presence of police at polling places. The British-controlled police service was a focal point of ire in the Nationalist community; Derry's Nationalists were particularly angry that police officers were stationed at polling places in their neighborhoods, but not in Unionist areas of the city. They had long resented the police because of a perceived campaign of harassment, including random car searches and raids on suspected paramilitary sympathizers. So the presence of the police at polling stations was seen as a heavy-handed move by the British to intimidate people from voting -- and thereby weaken the Nationalists' voting clout. For their part, British authorities claimed that police were needed to prevent Nationalist political parties from committing election fraud.

Previous election cycles in Derry followed a recurring story line: As poll closings neared, mobs of Nationalists, mostly young men, would gather outside six of Derry's 32 polling places, located in schools in Nationalist neighborhoods. Armed with stones and gasoline bombs, the rioters would take up positions leading to the school entrances. When the polls closed, police reinforcements would arrive to remove ballot boxes from the polling places. The vehicles would maneuver into position near the buildings' doors, and officers in full tactical gear would rush into the schools to collect the boxes and usher the electoral staff into the vehicles. The vehicles were attacked as they drove away. With only one route leading in and out of each polling place, the police were unable to disguise their arrival or alter their escape route.

Patricia Murphy, who was in charge of Derry's electoral office, recalled that the 2004 elections were the most violent in recent memory: On election night, rioters threw roughly 50 gasoline bombs. The police chief of Derry at the time was Ricky Russell, a 24-year veteran of the police service who became chief a few months before the 2004 elections. Witnessing the violence, he knew that something had to be done to change that pattern. Although as commander he had final responsibility to determine the police role at polling places, he recognized that fixing the problem required a joint effort by a broad spectrum of electoral officials, political party representatives, and community activists.

Two of these activists, Tony O'Doherty and Charlie O'Donnell, lived near a "hot spot" polling place, Holy Child Primary School. O'Doherty was a veteran community activist, while O'Donnell was the former principal of the school. Since the early 1990s, the two had mobilized groups of concerned neighbors to help monitor mob activity. Mothers, teachers, and members of the clergy joined the two men as they patrolled polling places and tried to discourage violent behavior. O'Doherty often searched the neighborhood for weapons; he once discovered 30 gasoline bombs stored behind a wall near the school.

With another vote scheduled for May 2005, appeals for a solution to Election Day violence gained urgency. Diverse constituencies recognized that they confronted an intertwined problem. The British government was eager to show that conditions in Derry had improved as Northern Ireland marked the seven-year anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Electoral officials felt added pressure because of the severity of the unrest in 2004 and the resulting media coverage.

Major political parties also had compelling reasons to work toward a solution. Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the IRA, refused to recognize the legitimacy of the police service and strongly opposed police involvement in electoral matters. But the violence deterred people from voting and thus threatened to cut into Sinn Fein's vote totals. Moreover, in accordance with the 1998 agreement, officials were keen to disassociate themselves from acts of violence.

As community activists, O'Doherty and O'Donnell both believed that the solution to the violence was home grown: "I kept pleading with the people in the elections office and the PSNI [Police Service of Northern Ireland]: ‘Let us take care of the ballot boxes,'" recalled former school principal O'Donnell.

Previous police chiefs had balked at community leaders' contentions that the police were the issue and should be removed from polling places. Police chief Russell, however, did not see on-site police involvement as a precondition for an election; while the police were responsible for the safety of the electoral staff and voters, the law did not require a police presence at polling stations.

In the autumn of 2004, Derry's City Council, whose members included both Unionists and Nationalists, gathered to discuss Election Day violence. Murphy, head of Derry's electoral office, attended the meeting, along with her boss Dennis Stanley, the chief electoral officer of the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland, the British government's elections-administration arm. Community activists, political players, and some members of the clergy were also on hand, but no police were present. Because Sinn Fein refused to recognize the legitimacy of the police, the two sides never appeared together in public.

Stanley outlined a plan to relocate five of the six hot-spot polling places to less populated areas: "We were looking to find new places that would not attract the rioters," he explained. The idea received a cool reception from Nationalists, who worried about losing votes. A Sinn Fein representative, Barney O'Hagan, offered a counterproposal: "What I proposed on behalf of the party was that we could identify prominent community leaders ... that could escort the ballot boxes out of the polling stations, and there wouldn't be any need for a police presence." Stanley rejected O'Hagan's proposal, and told the council that he would move ahead with his plan to relocate the polling places.

Weeks later, O'Hagan and a delegation of Sinn Fein members traveled to the Electoral Office's headquarters in Belfast, where they met with Stanley and reiterated their proposal. But Stanley remained firm in his plan to relocate the polling places, concerned about the opportunities for ballot tampering. "Sinn Fein were saying that they would police the election, and that was totally unacceptable in any democracy," recalled Stanley.

O'Hagan lamented the apparent stalemate: "There was no compromise. [Stanley's] whole argument was ... the police have a right to be there, they're legitimate. He refused to accept the idea that you could entrust Nationalist communities to host an election without an armed police guard."

After failing to win his point at the Belfast meeting, O'Hagan considered other paths. He realized that he might be able to sidestep Stanley if police chief Russell agreed to the plan, since Russell had the final say on the extent of police involvement. If Stanley went ahead with his plan to relocate polling places, Russell could choose not to station forces at the new sites. O'Hagan knew from speaking with O'Donnell and O'Doherty that senior police officials confided to the community activists that officers did not want to be involved in elections.

Because he was a member of Sinn Fein, O'Hagan had to approach police chief Russell through intermediaries, using O'Doherty and other community leaders to make his case. O'Hagan's message was simple: "We were confident that we could rally the community to support the proposal, and that we could actually give an assurance ... that the safety of everyone concerned would be guaranteed."

O'Doherty talked with fellow community leaders in other hot-spot polling places, and together they approached Russell. "[W]hat the community leaders conveyed to us was that there was a lot that the community could do to reduce the violence," Russell said. He favored the bold initiative to solve a problem that had defied solution by the usual methods.

Following this meeting, Russell met privately with chief electoral officer Stanley to discuss removing the police from the polling places. Stanley opposed the idea on a number of grounds; his primary concern was that the elections might be declared invalid if the ballot boxes were tampered with or damaged during removal.

A few days later, however, the Electoral Office announced that the polling places would remain where they were, and that the police would no longer be present. Community leaders had assured Stanley that they would take steps to prevent rioting; the police, in turn, had indicated they would work with the Electoral Office to minimize the chance of disruption -- including maintaining their distance from the polling places.

In the final weeks before the election, police chief Russell and Murphy, head of Derry's electoral office, met with Alex Penney, the police operations and planning inspector, who had spent 23 years with the police, 17 of which in Derry. The trio worked out new security arrangements for the hot spots. Phones were installed in each school with a direct line to the central police station. A local courier company, using unmarked vans, would pick up the ballot boxes and transport them to a secure holding facility. Van drivers would have radios to communicate with the police station. Police units would be on stand-by near each of the polling stations, and a police helicopter would patrol the polling stations and send back live video to the command center, which would track the vans and detect gathering crowds. 

In the weeks preceding the election, community activists O'Doherty and O'Donnell encouraged community members to help patrol the streets on Election Day and maintain calm outside the polling places. Sinn Fein and the Nationalist Social Democratic and Labor Party drew up lists of individuals who would help keep watch on the streets outside the polling places. 

Security preparations for Election Day 2005 began at 4:00 in the morning. Police swept all 32 polling places in Derry for weapons and bombs, and established vehicle checkpoints on the roads leading to the polling places. These procedures had been routine for decades, and the early start time minimized the risk of any backlash. The polling places opened at 7:00 AM. Police service members Russell and Penney were in the command center at the police station, where a screen beamed live images from the helicopter. Penney periodically called each polling place to ensure there were no disturbances. Both men were in frequent contact with Murphy, who spent much of the day driving among the polling places. Murphy also stayed in close contact by mobile phone with O'Doherty and the other community leaders.

By the evening, no polling station had reported a disturbance. Officers from the police's tactical unit took up positions about five minutes' driving distance from each of the hot spots. When the polls closed at 10:00 p.m., about 200 youths gathered outside Holy Child Primary School, and smaller crowds assembled at other hot spots. O'Doherty told the crowd at the school that the police would not show up. "They didn't believe it, and they hung about for an hour and a half, two hours," he recalled. "But eventually it got through to them."

One at a time, the vans traveled to each of the schools and retrieved the ballot boxes without incident. The helicopter tracked the vans to the holding center. O'Donnell, who only a year earlier had spent the day in the streets discouraging rioting, now assisted the electoral staff in moving the ballot boxes to the courier van. "As we were carrying the ballot boxes out, somebody started to clap and then everybody was applauding. It was just an extraordinary sensation."

Stakeholders hailed Election Day in 2005 as a turning point. By 2010, there had not been a single incident of rioting at polling places since the removal of the police. After successful elections in 2005 and 2007, electoral officials made two procedural changes for handling ballot transportation. First, ballot boxes could proceed directly to the counting center without first being diverted to a holding center. Second, instead of using a transport company, the senior presiding officers at most of the now-former hot-spot polling places drove the ballot boxes in their personal vehicles to the counting centers. (The helicopter patrol, however, remained in place.)

The strategy used in Derry may not necessarily be applicable to other cases; the success of the community-based initiative stemmed in large part from the political and ethnic unity of the Nationalist communities in specific areas of the city. Community activists, party representatives, and potential rioters all viewed the British as unwelcome occupiers of Northern Ireland. The strategies employed to police the elections -- mobilizing manpower in the form of respected community figures, and relying on persuasion by activists, mothers, and clergy -- worked because potential rioters could relate to the enforcers, and vice versa.

Police chief Russell removed his officers from hot-spot polling places because he was confident the idea would work in this particular situation. Had the community comprised both Unionists and Nationalists, any strategy that relied on shared enforcement may have faced significant problems. Former school principal O'Donnell credited the success of the effort largely to Russell's willingness to risk his own reputation, and to the organizational skills of O'Doherty and other community activists.

The success of the 2005 elections in Derry illustrates the power of a shared objective. The entities involved -- the police service, Nationalist party leaders and community organizers, and electoral officers -- were not traditional allies. However, these diverse groups recognized that peaceful elections were in their best interests. As a result, each group assumed risk in an effort to solve the problem of violence. Police chief Russell risked his job by trusting in the Nationalist communities to self-police the elections; Nationalist leaders risked their reputations both inside and outside of their communities by assuring crowd control; and electoral officials risked the integrity of their elections, should fraud be committed. These risks paid off thanks to the interwoven efforts of the stakeholders. As O'Donnell noted with satisfaction, "There were lots of players, but when spiders unite, they can tie up a tiger."

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images