THERE is no clear favourite as Indonesia’s megacity capital goes to the polls again today, after an initial vote for its governor in February failed to produce a conclusive result.
It has been the most divisive Indonesian election campaign in living memory – one of xenophobia and X-Men, fake news and forced evictions. Religious and racial tensions have run extremely high in a competition widely seen to be a proxy war for Indonesia’s 2019 presidential race.
The contest is now a dead heat between the incumbent Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama and his deputy Djarot Saiful Hidayat, and their opponents – educator and former national minister Anies Baswedan and businessman Sandiaga Uno.
The latest poll from Indikator, widely considered as one of the most credible Indonesian pollsters, puts Anies-Sandiaga at 48.2 percent – only marginally ahead of Ahok-Djarot with 47.4 percent. Some 4.4 percent of voters remain undecided.
— Bryce Green (@brycewg) April 12, 2017
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has declared April 19 a holiday in Jakarta, allowing some seven million registered voters a chance to cast their ballots.
Who are the candidates?
Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama
Unlike his opponents, Ahok is a career politician. He was head of East Belitung regency from 2005 where he earned the nickname “The Father” for his crackdowns on corruption. This has been a continued theme of his career as governor – no doubt earning him enemies in a country still grappling with systemic corruption.
Ahok entered the Indonesian house of representatives in 2009 and was subsequently elected alongside now-president Jokowi back in 2012.
When Jokowi took the presidency in 2014, Ahok became the first Christian and Tionghoa (ethnically Chinese) Indonesian to be in Jakarta’s top job since Henk Ngantung in the mid-1960s.
For several months, headlines across Indonesia and the region have been dominated by the political theatre of Ahok’s alleged blasphemy case, after he was seen to insult the Quran by referring to Verse 51 of Al Maidah on whether Muslims may elect a non-Muslim leader.
Mass demonstrations coordinated by hardline religious groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) have directed a lot of focus away from policy discussion towards identity and the role of religion in politics.
One protest held against the incumbent last December was the single largest religious event in Indonesian history.
But in February’s preliminary election, Ahok still managed to gain the most votes, while the controversy probably stopped him from securing an outright win.
Sectarian tensions have meant Ahok is branded as “progressive” by certain sectors of foreign media, but this is a stretch.
Ahok’s unapologetic regime of forced evictions of Jakarta’s poor have gained him enemies amongst the city’s activists and human rights defenders, not just hardline Muslims.
On other issues, he is far from progressive.
Early in his tenure, Ahok introduced toughened drug policy. In one of the debates during the gubernatorial race, Ahok’s deputy Djarot said their campaign stood for tougher law enforcement of the drugs trade and later even expressed support for capital punishment for drug crimes.
Djarot Calls on the Government to Increase Drug Eradication Efforts pic.twitter.com/9j9cohmhiV
— The Jakarta Globe (@thejakartaglobe) March 28, 2017
Ahok’s opponent Anies Baswedan is an academic who served as Education Minister under Jokowi, when he spearheaded a lauded national program named Indonesia Mengajar or Teaching Indonesia – an initiative that sends bright young people to teach in disadvantaged communities across the archipelago.
Anies was one of the first Indonesians to gain a Fulbright Scholarship to study in the United States, where he did his doctorate in political science at Northern Illinois University. He is articulate in English, built his reputation and career upon promoting tolerant, moderate Islam, and was the Rector of Paramadina University for almost a decade until 2015.
In the February poll, Ahok dominated in the wealthier and traditionally Tionghoa populated areas of North and West Jakarta. Anies, meanwhile, performed well in heavily Muslim areas of East and South Jakarta.
In the 2017 election, Anies’ running mate is Sandiaga – one of Indonesia’s wealthiest men. They started the campaign significantly trailing Ahok and the young ex-military son of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Agus, and his running mate Sylviana Murni.
A natural orator, Anies performed well in the televised debates against his rivals and was successful in courting the conservative Islamic vote, while Agus’ evident inexperience and lack of policy saw him suffer on election day.
Clever exploitation of many people’s disillusion with Ahok, based on his alleged blasphemy and harsh forced evictions regime, has seen Anies’ popularity rise and rise during the campaign.
As Dr Ian Wilson from Murdoch University recently told Asian Correspondent, “What we are seeing is a contestation between different elite cliques, not of political parties with strong social bases.”
Nevertheless, while the city’s many poor “aren’t necessarily convinced Anies will be any different, they feel they have little choice but to vote against Ahok,” he said.
A potentially dangerous precedent
It’s undeniable this election is about more than Jakarta.
Not only is it seen as a proxy war for the 2019 presidential election, it is also being watched closely by many of Indonesia’s religious and ethnic minority communities who believe the contest has bearing for their standing in the country.
Speaking to Asian Correspondent, Tobias Basuki of CSIS Jakarta said if Indonesia can overcome such challenges to its pluralism and democratic institutions, “it can prove wrong Islamophobia in the West” and provide leadership to other Muslim-majority nations.
Importantly, says Tobias, the legacy of the 2017 gubernatorial election will be the mainstreaming of a “political culture” that leverages race and religion.
He says were Ahok to lose, it provides to political parties the message that ethno-religious dog-whistling is a “potent tool” to kill off a politician’s career despite a sound record of good governance.
Anies’ willingness to controversially meet with the FPI recently and thus legitimise their aggressively intolerant worldview, strongly signals that he felt there was political currency in doing so.
It’s democracy. Anything can happen
Since November 2016, Ahok has made a miraculous comeback from his low rating of 29.8 percent, recovering to 47.4 percent the week before the vote.
Ultimately this reflects his historically high approval rating as governor based on his performance on implementing policy – unrelated to his double-minority identity, brash personality, or proneness to offending people.
SMRC: Ahok's electibility growing from 31% (Dec) to 46.9% (April). Why? Decrease in voters who think he insulted Islam, or accepted apology
— Ross Tapsell (@RossTapsell) April 12, 2017
It seems likely, however, that it might not be enough to get him over the line.
More than three quarters of voters surveyed in a Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting poll were satisfied with Ahok’s performance as governor, however his electability rating remained below 50 percent.
A total 32.4 percent of Anies-Sandiaga voters chose candidates because they were the “same religion as them.”
Meanwhile, Anies’ trajectory from trailing to now maintaining a slim lead suggests his appeals to Jakarta’s poor and efforts to attract the votes of right-wing Muslims have been effective.
Despite fairly nasty, divisive politics throughout the campaign, it is worth acknowledging that Indonesia’s hosting of genuinely free and fair democratic elections is a triumph – particularly in its region.
Neighbouring Malaysia – which shares many cultural, religious and historical characteristics, and is professedly democratic like Indonesia – has been ruled by the same party for almost 50 years.
Politicians in the Philippines are now being locked up for criticising the lawless, bloody war on drugs being presided over by President Rodrigo Duterte while Thailand’s strong democracy has been trashed by a military junta attempting to cement its power for the long haul.
Indonesia meanwhile remains the freest country in Southeast Asia and Muslim-majority nation on earth.
Regardless of who wins today, perhaps this in itself is already an achievement worth rejoicing.