Not just another local election

Not just another local election

Candidates for the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election are gearing up for a poll that will have ramifications for national politics

On 15 February 2017 Indonesia will once again hold local executive elections for governors, mayors and district heads.

Of the 101 elections to be held simultaneously across the country that day, the most highly anticipated is the gubernatorial election in the capital, Jakarta, where incumbent governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok, will seek to win his first full term after assuming the governor post in 2014 in the wake of Joko Widodo’s (Jokowi’s) rise to the presidency.

If, as expected, the election commission endorses all the registered candidates, Ahok will face two challengers, former education minister Anies Baswedan and Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, the eldest son of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

How important this election really is became obvious during the three-day registration period when prominent national party leaders such as Megawati Sukarnoputri (Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle, PDI-P), Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (Democratic Party, PD) and Prabowo Subianto (Greater Indonesia Movement Party, Gerindra) took personal charge of coalition talks and the final decisions about who would eventually be nominated. In view of the high-profile interventions, Yudhoyono professed that this election ‘feels like a presidential election’.

High stakes

Indeed, the stakes are high in this election. As the nation’s capital, Jakarta has one of the biggest provincial budgets in the country, and the position of governor can, as Ahok’s predecessor Jokowi demonstrated, be a springboard for higher office at the national level.

The deep involvement of Jakarta’s most powerful party leaders in the nomination process certainly indicates that this election has implications for the national level, not least the 2019 presidential election. But apart from reorganising power and patronage in the capital, the Jakarta poll will also yield critical insights into other aspects of electoral politics in Indonesia, especially the nature of campaigning and voter mobilisation and, given Ahok’s background as a Christian ethnic Chinese, the salience of ethnic and religious sentiments among the Indonesian electorate.

Once the Jakarta election commission has completed the verification of the candidates’ documents, the official campaign will commence on 26 October. Unofficially though, it has of course long begun, at least for the incumbent.

Since the middle of last year, Ahok’s re-election bid has been a constant news item as a group of enthusiastic activists called Teman Ahok (Friends of Ahok) campaigned tenaciously for the current governor to seek re-election as an independent candidate. In March 2016, the group appeared to have achieved its goal when Ahok declared that he would indeed run as an independent.

Merely four months later, however, he reneged on that statement and decided to run as a party candidate instead, accepting a nomination from a party coalition consisting of Golkar, Nasdem and Hanura. In the following months, speculation mounted whether PDI-P, the party with the largest share of seats in Jakarta’s regional parliament, would also join this coalition.

While Ahok repeatedly claimed that PDI-P chairwoman Megawati backed his bid, the party faithful were apparently deeply divided over the incumbent. Those in favour pointed to Ahok’s high public approval rates, his successes in reforming the city bureaucracy and reducing damaging floods, and the high symbolic value for a secular–pluralist party like PDI-P to support a candidate hailing from a double minority background.


Critics, on the other hand, expressed their dismay about Ahok’s ruthless eviction of poor kampung residents—an important part of PDI-P’s constituency in Jakarta—and his often disparaging remarks about parties in general and PDI-P in particular. In the end, party leader Megawati Sukarnoputri determined to back Ahok despite persistent resentments, a decision that gave the incumbent a significant boost ahead of the start of the campaign.

With Ahok now running as a party candidate rather than an independent, his campaign managers will need to devise a strategy that not only highlights their candidate’s achievements and popular image as a maverick, but also accommodates the inherently patronage-driven interests of the parties that nominated him.

However, with a reluctant PDI-P coming on board only at the last minute, frictions within the campaign team seem inevitable, providing a potential opportunity for grassroots activists to reclaim a space in the campaign. In fact, even if the party machines do function well, Jakarta’s large pool of well-educated middle-class voters is unlikely to be easily persuaded solely by conventional party-driven campaign strategies. Teman Ahok may therefore well be called upon again later in the campaign to help mobilise young and undecided voters.

The campaigns of Ahok’s challengers, by contrast, are likely to rely more heavily on the trusted combination of money and mainstream media. As neither Agus Yudhoyono nor Anies Baswedan possess the kind of charisma that could inspire broadbased volunteer activism, these two will seek to bolster their chances primarily by utilising the large financial resources of their powerful oligarchic backers. Anies Baswedan in particular will bank on the generosity of his running mate Sandiaga Uno, one of Indonesia’s richest men, and Gerindra patron Prabowo Subianto.

While political dynasties are common and widespread in Indonesia, the nation’s capital with its large number of well-educated voters seems unlikely to endorse a totally inexperienced candidate purely based on the merits and charisma of his father

That said, Anies himself is not an archetypical representative of the old elite. Rather, his reputation rests mostly on his academic credentials as a former rector of Paramadina University and his political experience at the highest level as he held a ministerial post in Jokowi’s cabinet until the most recent reshuffle.

Agus, meanwhile, will bring the politics of dynastic succession to the campaign. As a mid-ranking military officer with no political track record to show for, Agus’s only trump card is the reputation of his father, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. For the campaign, that will mean that Jakarta voters are likely to see a lot of the former president over the coming months.

Political dynasties

But whether the mobilisation of nostalgic sentiment will sell in Jakarta is questionable. While political dynasties are common and widespread in Indonesia, the nation’s capital with its large number of well-educated voters seems unlikely to endorse a totally inexperienced candidate purely based on the merits and charisma of his father. Agus’s candidature should therefore be seen first and foremost in the broader context of succession within the Democratic Party. Even if he loses the Jakarta election, Agus should receive enough publicity during the campaign to prepare him for taking over the leadership of the party that was once founded exclusively for his father’s political ambitions.

Significantly, Agus’s candidature is also supported by three Islamic parties, the United Development Party (PPP), the National Mandate Party (PAN) and the National Awakening Party (PKB). But although the support of these parties was vital for pushing through Agus as a candidate, their role in the coalition talks was clearly overshadowed by Yudhoyono.

Desperate to make their presence felt, some prominent Islamic politicians therefore deemed it necessary to resort to sectarianism to lift their public profile. Describing Ahok as ‘the antichrist’, former PAN leader Amien Rais, for example, urged voters not to re-elect Ahok because of his ethnicity and religion.

Arguably, these attacks are a sign of things to come in the coming months as Islamic hardliners will try hard to tap into the sizeable pool of voters for whom religion is an important factor in considering their options on polling day.

Ultimately, however, sectarianism will not decide this election. More important than the mobilisation of ethnic and religious emotions will be how effectively the two opposition candidates can expose Ahok’s other vulnerabilities. Given the incumbent’s polarising personality and controversial leadership style, there should be plenty of opportunities to attack Ahok’s track record, especially in regards to his apparent disdain for the urban poor and the highly controversial land reclamation project in the Jakarta Bay.

Whatever the final outcome, the election will almost certainly have ramifications for national politics. Having imposed their will on the nomination process, party leaders like Megawati, Yudhoyono and Prabowo will all watch the Jakarta poll with eager anticipation because the result will directly influence their strategic planning for the 2019 presidential election.

Indeed, whoever wins in Jakarta next year might well be expected to find himself in the running for a presidential or, more likely, vice-presidential ticket in 2019.

Featured image
Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok. (Flickr/Sipahutar.)

Dr Dirk Tomsa is an Associate Professor in Politics and Head of Department of Politics, Media and Philosophy at La Trobe University. Associate Professor Tomsa is the incoming Editor-in-Chief of the Asian Studies Review.

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