SOLO, Indonesia (Reuters) - A quiet revolution is under way in Solo, Central Java, and in other parts of Indonesia where local leaders are learning that one way to get re-elected is to take voters and their needs seriously.
Joko Widodo, a former furniture salesman, was elected mayor of this royal city four years ago. Like a handful of other local leaders, he has made a name for himself by taking on bureaucracy, graft and infrastructure in Solo, a microcosm of the problems that afflict Southeast Asia's biggest economy.
He and some of his peers, typically men in their forties or fifties with a background in business, are already regarded as potential candidates for much bigger jobs on the national stage, the governors and ministers of the future, because their "can-do" approach helps to attract investment.
"I am not a genius. I just ask the people what they want. You want, I give," said Widodo, 48, in an interview with Reuters.
"In other cities, they have the top-down approach. I don't want this. I want bottom up. It's better for me if there is participatory planning."
Across Indonesia, which embraced democracy after autocratic president Suharto was forced to quit in 1998 and holds its second direct election for president next week, voters are punishing leaders who don't listen, regardless of party affiliation or campaign budgets, says election observer Kevin Evans.
"This is definitely a pattern," Evans said.
"In the legislative elections (in April), we saw incumbent candidates with lots of money being chucked out and some minor parties get a massive burst of votes in areas where they have a good candidate."
Following decentralization, provinces and districts are now being ranked on the basis of their investor-friendliness. Widodo, who sold locally-produced furniture overseas before he became mayor, has already attracted "rave reviews" said Kevin O'Rourke, Jakarta-based political risk analyst.
"He's up and coming and could be governor of Central Java one day," said O'Rourke. In Solo, he has been tipped as a future tourism minister after establishing cultural fairs, building a new airport and launching plans for an inter-city highway.
Indonesia's Tempo Magazine late last year named him one of 10 leaders to watch.
"They created innovations and breakthroughs," said Tempo, adding that among these "few good men" were "a number of promising future leaders."
Some built parks and clean open spaces to improve the quality of life, or encouraged breakthrough agricultural practices. Others cut the stifling bureaucracy and corruption that accompanies some of the most basic public services in Indonesia.
Untung Wiyono, regent of Sragen near Solo, connected all his villages to the internet, while Andi Hatta Marakarma, regent of Luwu Timur, South Sulawesi, built new villages and roads, helping to cut the cost of transporting rice by over two-thirds.
It's not just the cities and local districts which form a breeding ground for leaders-in-waiting: a handful of provincial governors are considered among those to watch.
Fadel Muhammad, governor of Gorontolo province in northern Sulawesi, was widely seen as a potential vice presidential candidate in the run-up to this year's elections, thanks partly to his success in attracting foreign direct investment and tackling power shortages, although he didn't make it this time.
His counterpart in South Sumatra, Alex Noerdin, made his name when he was regent of Musi Banyu Asin district, using royalties from local commodities producers to pay for the construction of new schools and hospitals where local residents were entitled to free education and free medical care.
Now, as governor, he has promised to introduce such services throughout the province.
When Widodo took office in June 2005, his first order of business was fixing the local bureaucracy in Solo where, like in other parts of Indonesia, red tape was hobbling growth.
Local business leaders complained that it was taking between six and eight months for their business permit applications to be processed, depending "on the size of the envelope," Widodo said, referring to the brown paper envelopes of cash that are often required to speed up such processes.
"So I created a one-stop service. The maximum for the business permit now is only six days."
Widodo also cut the time it takes to get an identity card from over a month to just one hour, insisting on pay cuts or suspension for those civil servants that failed to comply.
Next he tackled the city's tourism sector by backing plans for an annual batik festival and a handicrafts night market, commissioning an opera house and pushing for a new airport which opened in March and a toll road which will eventually connect Solo to the tourist destinations of Yogyakarta and Semarang.
Part of his city overhaul involved cleaning up a grubby square where street vendors served food in unsanitary conditions.
He invited all 989 of the street vendors to dine at his residence, which is decorated with furniture he made himself, hosting a total of 54 dinners over a period of three months.
"First I asked the sellers, what do you want? What do you need? I always communicate with the people before I decide something. After I know what they want, I design a program around that," he said.
He found a new site for the stall holders, provided them with new stainless steel-topped stalls, free business permits, and access to running water. The old site was turned into a park.
The new hawker centre has become a tourist attraction and is regularly packed with diners. On a walk through the centre with Reuters, vendors approached the mayor to shake his hand.
"You have to be very patient if you want to change things," he said. "The most important thing is to listen, then provide the infrastructure people want. Then the behavior will change."