Bill Puts Brakes on Emergence of Indonesia’s New Local Leaders: A View from Surabaya
October 1, 2014
On September 26, the House of Representatives passed a bill that took away Indonesians’ right to vote for governors, mayors, and district heads, and gave it to the corresponding regional legislative bodies. Since then, Indonesians have expressed concern that the decision is likely to put the brakes on the emergence of a new generation of dynamic and responsive regional leaders that have excited the public and invigorated Indonesian democracy. Popular local leaders such as Bantaeng Regent Nurdin Abdullah, Bandung Mayor Ridwan Kamil, and Surabaya Mayor Tri Rismaharini, or Risma, have all come to power as a result of direct elections. In fact, in mid-2014, the City Mayors Foundation nominated Mayor Risma as one of the 26 best mayors in the world. As Indonesia digests this news, her positive impact on Surabaya’s development over the last four years is worth recalling.
The prize is awarded every two years to a mayor who has made outstanding contributions to his or her community and has developed a vision for urban living and working that is relevant to towns and cities across the world. This is not the first time Mayor Risma has been nominated; her effectiveness in managing Indonesia’s second-largest city has positioned her as one of the most prominent city leaders in the world. Risma is the only mayor shortlisted from Indonesia and is one of just five women among the 26 nominees. Other nominees for the prize, which will be announced in January 2015, are from North America (four), Latin America (four), Europe (nine), Asia (six), Australia (one), and Africa (two).
Like many other rapidly growing countries, Indonesia faces enormous challenges in managing its bulging cities. Latest figures show that the percentage of people living in urban areas in Indonesia is almost 50 percent, or around 118 million out of 237 million people. In 2025, it is estimated that this number will rise to 68 percent. These fast-growing metropolises not only bring hope but also carry enormous challenges. Common problems in Indonesia’s urban areas are lack of affordable housing, absence of reliable public transportation, poor waste management, and limited access to open and green public spaces.
The latter has become a particularly hot issue in Indonesia. While huge, modern shopping malls have transformed the meaning of public space for Indonesia’s city residents, city malls cannot replace the function of open and green public spaces. Today’s challenge is not about how to restrict the size or number of cities but to manage the cities effectively to ensure their productivity and continued growth.
Appointed as mayor of Surabaya in 2010, Risma has developed a clear vision for urban living during her first five-year term. She has turned her famous proverb, “a city must be first and foremost a home for its citizens” into action. As an architect and city planner, she learned from the experience of other fast-growing cities that massive new developments could in fact further separate people from their city.
Under her leadership, Risma transformed around 22 percent of Surabaya’s unused and unappealing land into public green spaces. She has improved public transportation, increased taxes and regulations for billboards, revitalized many unused city parks into all-in-one entertainment parks, pushed forward the development of a road connection between the harbor, bus terminal, and airport, and improved pedestrian walkways in the central business district that facilitate the needs of the disabled. She involved citizens in a citywide movement to raise awareness about proper garbage disposal – a problem that many cities in Indonesia face.
Risma’s success in greening a once hot and dusty city, along with her growing national profile, has led to hope that her style of leadership would be replicated in other areas of Indonesia. Such expectations are not without basis – in addition to the mayors of Bogor and Bandung, direct elections have produced promising leaders in the districts of Bantaeng (South Sulawesi), Banyuwangi and Wonosobo (in East Java), and the province of Central Java. President-elect Joko Widodo is of course the most famous product of direct local elections, having risen from the mayoral post in Solo to the governorship of Jakarta before running for the top job.
But these are just flashes of hope among the 505 cities/districts and 34 provinces across Indonesia. Direct elections have been shown to produce strong and effective leadership, and for Indonesia’s cities, strong leaders like Mayor Risma are essential. After last week’s decision, Indonesians say they have serious doubts that leaders indebted to the legislators who elected them will have the strength – or inclination – to make citizens’ wellbeing a priority.
Novi Anggriani is a program officer for The Asia Foundation in Indonesia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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