Story highlights

Indonesian leader Joko Widodo has risen to power without ties to country's military or elite

AirAsia Flight QZ8501's crash was among the first crises Widodo has faced

Joko has taken tough stance on executions: "There will be no amnesty for drug dealers"

Jakarta, Indonesia CNN  — 

It would be easy not to pay Joko Widodo a second glance as he rides his bike down a Jakarta boulevard wearing track pants and white sneakers.

But fill that boulevard with thousands of Javanese out for the Sunday stroll, and you soon realize he is no ordinary Indonesian.

“Jokowi!” they shout – using the nickname by which the country’s new President is universally referred – reaching out to him for handshakes and selfies.

“Pagi!” – “Good morning!”

In October, he took office as President of this enormous Pacific archipelago of about 250 million people – the largest Muslim-majority country in the world.

“Indonesia is a big country. We have 17,000 islands, and it is not easy to manage that,” he told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in an exclusive interview Sunday, speaking a mixture of English and Bahasa Indonesia.

He has made the “blusukan” – an unannounced visit with the people – a trademark of his political brand.

“Blusukan is go to the people, go to the ground,” he told Amanpour as he walked his bike through crowds in central Jakarta.

“We check our program, we consult our program, and we must know the real situation (on) the ground.”

To the detriment of his bodyguards’ stress levels, he makes these visits at least once a week.

It is a rare sight for any world leader, let alone one who leads a country with a history of violent separatist movements.

His security team allows the President to be jostled by young and old elbowing in for a handshake.

Later at a slum that he’s transformed into new low-cost housing, an elderly woman walks right up to the President.

“She asked my number – telephone number!” he says.

“Things are getting a little too friendly,” says Amanpour with a smile.

Humble beginnings

Joko was raised in a down-and-out area of the central Java city of Surakarta, known as Solo. His father was a carpenter, and he followed in his footsteps, becoming a furniture exporter.

His rise to power was unusual – he has no history with the military or the elite, unlike the country’s former presidents. He rose to prominence through his extremely popular tenures as mayor of Solo and then governor of Jakarta.

His musical tastes, too, are unusual for a head of state. As heavy metal blared through his car’s speakers, Joko slapped his thigh in rhythm with the song and told Amanpour that some of his favorite bands include Led Zeppelin and Metallica.

Amanpour raised his upbringing as they stood overlooking the former slum.

“I know the situation; I know the condition,” he says. “Because when I was little, when I was a boy, I stayed (on) the riverbank in the slum area.”

In southeast Asia’s largest garment market, narrow hallways lined with stalls become impassable as seemingly everyone in the florescent-lit building pours in for a chance to see “Jokowi.”

He stops to buy 20 sarongs – for gifts in the office, he says – from a salesman, who struggles to contain his giddy excitement.

Indonesia has had trouble breaking into the global marketplace that has transformed many of its Asian neighbors like China.

“Indonesia is a big country. And I want my people (to be) prosperous,” he says. “It’s not easy, but I want it.”

His challenges are many. Indonesia’s gross domestic product growth has been slowing; shortly after Joko took office, the World Bank said the country’s growth rate was the lowest it had been for five years.

“I am sure that with fiscal changes that we have enacted, by (focusing) and dealing with infrastructure and providing opportunity for investment – whether local or foreign investments – I am sure that we will grow better this year between (5.6% to 5.8% growth).”

If conditions are right, within three years, he says GDP growth could be more than 7%.

“But we have to work hard,” he says.

Early success with cutting fuel subsidies

In his first 100 days, Joko did something his predecessors have tried and failed to enact: a cut in the enormous fuel subsidies the government offers. (For now, of course, he has been helped by plummeting global oil prices.)

In the late 1990s, protests over fuel prices kindled an uprising that led to the resignation of the dictator Suharto.

With the cut in fuel subsidies, the savings to government has been around 230 trillion rupiah (about $18 billion), Joko says, promising more for his infrastructure, health and education plans.

His vision is to curtail the use of government money to promote consumption of fossil fuels and instead use funds to bolster the country’s desperately lacking health and education systems, and infrastructure.

“To build our infrastructure; to improve the irrigation for the farmer, seed and fertilizer to the farmer; and then we give (good boat engines) to the fishermen, we give refrigerators to the fishermen; and we give working capital to small (enterprises) in the villages.”

“So from the consumption to the production. From the consumptive activities to the productive activities.”

AirAsia disaster his first big challenge

Two months after taking office, AirAsia Flight QZ8501 crashed in Indonesian waters with 162 people on board.

“I don’t know” why the plane went down, the President told Amanpour.

“It can be because of the weather, it can be because of other reasons. We are not sure about that now. But the most important thing is that the operation was conducted quickly, and we are continuing” the removal of bodies from the ocean floor.

A preliminary report is due out this week. Last week, the country’s transportation minister said the plane had climbed rapidly and stalled before it crashed into the sea.

AirAsia is a Malaysian carrier, but Indonesia has long had a troubled airline industry and regulatory system.

So dangerous is the country’s industry that only five Indonesia airlines are permitted to fly within the European Union – more than 60 others are banned, as of November.

“What we want to fix is the (regulatory) system. We are going to fix this,” he says.

“But the (reform) of system administration is not related to the airline accidents.”

AirAsia Flight QZ8501 was not licensed to fly its route from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore on the day it took off.

“There is no relation,” he insisted, between the regulatory system and the crash.

‘Islam and democracy can go together’

As the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation and democracy, Indonesia is often held up as a beacon of moderation.

Since the killings of 17 people in France this month, the world has turned its focus to radical Islam in a greater way, perhaps, than any time since 9/11. The world in some way is looking to this country among others to hold the line.

Most of the world’s Muslims are not Arab, and Indonesia is a case in point.

“There is no compromise for violence. No compromise. And we really condemn that. But we also need to respect each other, respect other religions among people, between individuals, we have to respect each other,” Joko says.

“Differences can be a beauty. It’s not going to be something that’s scary.”

The country has had its bouts with violent Islamism – a 2002 al Qaeda-affiliated attack in Bali that left 202 dead and a long-running but now diminished Islamic separatist movement in Aceh.

Between 250 and 300 Indonesians have gone to fight with ISIS and other extremist groups in Syria, Joko says.

“The number is really small,” he points out, for a population with a quarter-billion people.

“We have a good experience in handling radicalism and extremism through not only (the) security approach, but also (the) cultural and religious approach. In Indonesia, we have big moderate Islamic organizations,” Joko says.

“Those organizations are the ones who teach moderate Islam, Islam that has got good tolerance toward any other religions. And thanks be to god that in Indonesia at present this process (is) going well.”

The “security approach doesn’t solve the problem, will not solve the problem. But (the) religious approach, cultural approach, (is) going to lessen (the problem) a lot.”

Some analysts worry that radical Islamist organizations in Indonesia may relish the training ground Syria has provided.

“There are some people who went using fake or forged passports, but they arrested in our airports,” Joko says.

“We want Indonesia to be an example of moderate Islam, Islam that has tolerance, good Islam. And I am sure that we are able to do so. In Indonesia, Islam and democracy can go together.”

Politics hit home early

Indonesia can be a land of ruthless politics. Three months into his term, Joko was facing his first big administrative crisis.

His choice for police chief, Budi Gunawan, was a favorite of the head of his political party and benefactor, former President Megawati Sukarnoputri. (Unusual for an Indonesian President, Joko does not head a political party.)

Days after Joko announced the nomination, Gunawan was indicted by the country’s anti-corruption commission.

In apparent retaliation, police arrested the deputy chief of the country’s anti-corruption body.

These events have rocked and gripped the country – the subject of protests and daily page-one newspaper stories.

“Our commitment still is to eradicate corruption,” Joko tells Amanpour through an interpreter. “And we have to also use the presumption of innocence principle.”

Because of the corruption investigation, he says, Gunawan’s inauguration as chief – despite overwhelming approval of parliament – has been delayed.

“Everybody has to be mature in looking at it as a legal process, and the President is not allowed to intervene. This is a legal process.”

‘No compromise’ on death sentences for drug dealers

The rise of a nonmilitary politician may have given hope to those who wanted a dovish president, but Joko’s approach to drug smugglers on death row has been cold comfort.

In December, he announced that he would reject clemency requests for 64 inmates sentenced to die.

Six prisoners were killed by firing squad this month, including five foreigners. Brazil and the Netherlands (Indonesia’s former colonial power) withdrew their ambassadors in protest.

Two Australians are due to face the firing squad; Joko rejected their requests for clemency as well, over appeals from the Australian Prime Minister.

“Imagine every day we have 50 people die because of narcotics, of drugs. In one year, it’s 18,000 people who die because of narcotics. We are not going to compromise for drug dealers. No compromise. No compromise,” he says.

“The decision of death penalty is on the court. But they can ask for amnesty to the President. But I tell you there will be no amnesty for drug dealers.”

So no relief, Amanpour asked, for the Australians due to die?

No, the President shook his head.

“Eighteen thousand people die every year. I ask you, is it not more dangerous?”