The region’s dynamic duo

Former Philippine President Joseph Estrada, now a mayor, inspects a recovered shotgun used in a criminal case at a police station in Manila in July.
Former Philippine President Joseph Estrada, now a mayor, inspects a recovered shotgun used in a criminal case at a police station in Manila in July. REUTERS

The region’s dynamic duo

In the recent past, two men who could hardly be more different have been elected to govern the capital cities of their countries.

That they have their work cut out goes without saying, for Manila and Jakarta are two of the region’s biggest and most unmanageable cities.

Manila’s new mayor, the ex-film star Joseph “Erap” Estrada, is a former president of the Philippines and resembles a kind of Ronald Reagan figure – if Reagan had ever played a rakish bandit, instead of clean-cut sheriffs.

In contrast, Jakarta’s new governor, Joko Widodo, known as “Jokowi”, is a simple man of the people, who can wander into a wet market, grab a bowl of noodles and share life stories with the paisanos.

Yet despite their orthogonal differences, they are two men who almost everybody would love to have as uncles. There would never be a dull moment.

It would be like living in a milieu that resembled a cross between Yes, Minister, The Sopranos and The Lone Ranger.

Yet, setting aside their opposing personalities, Erap and Jokowi have one crucial similarity: They both know how to win elections. And in politics, nothing else is more important.

As an Indonesian minister recently remarked when asked if a colleague was a suitable presidential candidate: “It does not matter if he is suitable, or if he is good or bad. What matters is: Is he electable?”

Erap and Joko have proved they are consistently electable, often under conditions of adversity that, in the eyes of the media, caused them to be rated as rank outsiders. Yet they always triumphed.

Consider Erap, whose nickname is formed from the reverse spelling of the Tagalog word Pare, which, as befits his nature, means “Buddy”.

Big “Buddy” Estrada, the paunchy, moustachioed, philandering Marlboro Man, was widely ridiculed when he entered politics, and especially when he made a bid for the nation’s highest office in 1998.

But Erap, who hails from a relatively affluent family, is smart, and while he knew his image upset the establishment, he knew it clicked with the masses who recoil at bogus political correctness.

So he stayed non-PC and never denied smoking, drinking and fathering five ninos by various mistresses – and still became president by the biggest margin ever recorded in Philippine elections.

Three years later, he was deposed by an uprising instigated by the military and the Catholic Church, jailed for life, pardoned by his successor Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and now he has become mayor of Manila.

So it’s déjà vu all over again. As it is, in a way, for Jokowi, who, despite being a diametrically different politician, shares Erap’s capacity to win elections by displaying the common touch.

Jokowi is a slim, non-smoking, teetotalling family man, whose only nonconformist trait is a love of rock music – he was once the proud owner of a guitar signed by a member of the eardrum-busting band Metallica.

For sure, he’s no stern ascetic. Yes, he puts in prodigious hours, but really he’s just a regular Jo, who loves to strum his guitar and sing along with the folks in suburban slums and rural heartlands.

It was this quality that enabled Jokowi to become well known as the mayor of the small city of Solo in central Java, where he first used his people skills to relocate stall holders to new and more amenable retail areas.

Then, after winning last year’s Jakarta governorship poll, he again went down to the barrios and persuaded recalcitrant vendors and squatters to move so that traffic and flood alleviation measures could be taken.

It is now clear that barring a disaster, Jokowi is going to use the governor’s post as a stepping stone to the presidency of this region’s biggest and most powerful nation.

Last week, Indonesia’s most influential publication, Tempo, had a photograph of him on the cover, with the headline “Run, Joko, Run”.

If he runs, he will win. Because, like his opposite, Erap, he has that ineluctable quality of electability.