Humility is the best policy

Joko Widodo, the Indonesian president, is an able successor to Uruguay’s José Mújica, widely seen as the world’s most humble leader

A student takes a selfie with Indonesian President Widodo (Reuters)

A student takes a selfie with Indonesian President Widodo (Reuters)

The quiet man sitting on his haunches in a farmer’s field. The casually dressed father taking selfies at his son’s graduation. Joko Widodo took office six weeks ago and the president of Indonesia likes nothing more than going for an impromptu walkabout. He is the first person to lead his country who is not from the military or the elite and he uses his commoner’s background as a plus-point.

Mr Widodo campaigned for the presidency on the back of a ‘man of the people’ tag and he certainly is a man amongst the people, worrying his minders as he chats to residents on wanders through markets.  Once a furniture salesman in the family business, he is now in charge of the world’s biggest Muslim country, where 250m inhabitants are spread across 18,000 islands.

A country that is far away from Indonesia in geography, size and population is Uruguay. It is a tiny nation of 3.4m people, sandwiched between two muscly neighbours in Argentina and Brazil. Indonesia dominates its next-door nations, sprawling all over South East Asia. It is the biggest economy in the region with GDP last year of $868bn, towering over Uruguay’s output of $55bn.

But these differing places do have something in common: a down-to-earth president who shies away from the trappings of power. To call José Mújica, the president of Uruguay, modest is an understatement. In the five years he has led his country he has shunned the presidential residence, choosing to stay in his small farmstead outside the capital with his wife and three-legged dog. He dresses in a relaxed manner, far more comfortable in jeans and an open shirt than a pin-stripe suit.

José Mújica outside his garage on his farm (Reuters)

José Mújica outside his garage on his farm (Reuters)

Widodo is also at ease in his home clothes, admitting he only really wears white shirts and practical shoes, often stopping on his walkabouts, or blusukan, to buy local market clothes. Both men have forgone official transport, too. The Uruguayan drives an old VW Beetle and he flies economy class when taking to the skies.

His Indonesian counterpart recently declined to use the presidential plane flying to Singapore. Mújica is affectionately known as “Pepe” and the shared down-to-earth image of the two men is further underlined by the fact that almost everyone knows the Indonesian leader by a nickname as well, in his case “Jokowi”.

There are distinctions between the two countries. Mújica has overseen the legalisation of gay marriage and marjiuana in Uruguay. The use of cannabis is illegal in Indonesia and parts of the country have introduced sharia law, under which homosexuality is a criminal offence.

Jokowi is only getting started but José Mújica is on his way out. Tábare Vázquez will replace the understated man in power in Montevideo on 1 March next year. But though Pepe is leaving office, he won’t have to change desks, as he’ll still be sitting at the little cottage table he’s always sat at, in his humble home. Meanwhile, 9,400 miles away in Indonesia, Jokowi appears to be a willing follower carrying Mújica’s humble mantle.

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