Jakarta’s gubernatorial election: A sign of the times

The Indonesian capital’s recent election was hard fought and polarizing. But its peaceful conclusion demonstrates again that Indonesia’s democratic system has grown to be quite robust.

Jakarta’s gubernatorial election: A sign of the times AFP Photo/Bay Ismoyo

The election system used in Jakarta is a standard two-round system with the winning candidate having to secure more than 50 percent of the popular vote to win. Before proceeding further, it may be useful to outline the political divides that exist in most of Indonesia, including its capital. The left and the right in Indonesia are not so much defined by socioeconomic divisions as often seen in Western societies. Rather, in Indonesia the divisions may be seen along a more civilization-based spectrum between those attracted to an Islamist agenda (right) and those attracted to a nationalist/pluralist, or Pancasilist (left), view of society and public life.

Jakarta voters have tended, historically, to be center-right in their voting preferences. Looking back at the various political eras of Indonesian history, Jakarta’s voters supported the Islamist Masyumi Party and Nahdlatul Ulama, rather than the Indonesian Nationalist Party or Indonesian Communist Party in the 1950s. During the long Soeharto era, where the middle-ground Golkar party did not always dominate Jakarta, voters preferred the Islamist United Development Party (PPP) to the nationalist Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) in five of the six elections.

Even in the new democratic era, voters have tended to offer greater support to the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and PPP than the nationalist Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), even though in Jakarta, as elsewhere, the largest number of voters have tended to support middle of the road, catch-all type parties.

Indonesia’s transformation from a parliamentary to presidential system of government, which emerged as a result of constitutional amendments in 2002, was soon followed at the local government level. Since 2005, local government leaders have also been elected by the voters and no longer by their respective legislative bodies. There have been three direct elections for governor of Jakarta, in 2007, 2012 and 2017. In both 2012 and 2017, as no candidate won in the first round, a second round was required. The results can be seen in the below table. The colors used for each candidate reflect the color of the key party in the coalition that supported each candidate. In addition, the left-right division between the candidates is also noted.

Notable is that the candidate to the left was successful in both 2007 and 2012. In 2017, it was the right candidate who emerged victorious. Indeed, between the election of Joko Widodo in 2012 and the failed election of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama in 2017, the only region where the former governor, known as Ahok, proved more successful was in the Thousand Islands. Intriguingly, this was the area where his career-wrecking legal troubles began.

The results by region across the province of Jakarta also indicate that left-supported candidates secured higher percentages of votes in regions with larger non-Muslim populations (West and North Jakarta), while rightsupported candidates were more successful in South and East Jakarta, where the percentage of the non-Muslim population is lower. The graph below provides a breakdown of the population of Jakarta by religion and by region.

The lightly populated Thousand Islands is home to almost no non-Muslims, while Central Jakarta’s population sits between the more Muslim South and East, and less-Muslim North and West of Jakarta.

Some commentators lament that the loss by Ahok to former education minister Anies Baswedan, who takes office in October, reflects a degradation of Indonesia’s pluralist roots. Some liked to suggest prior to the election season that a victory by Ahok would be akin to the victory of Sadiq Khan in London. In many respects, this is not a fair comparison. Most Londoners do not factor religious faith as a key aspect of their political or, indeed, other thinking. People in Jakarta do. A more accurate way for outsiders to picture this election dynamic would be to consider not London, but Texas, and with a Jewish African-American candidate from New York who, on top of all this, was on trial in court for having denigrated the Bible! Despite all this, some one-third of Muslim voters in Jakarta still voted for Ahok, recalling that some 85 percent of Jakartans are Muslim. Note well, too, that there were non-Muslims who voted for his Muslim opponent.

Even so, did Ahok lose because he was a Sino-Indonesian Christian in a predominantly Muslim and non-Sino-Indonesian city? To begin answering this question it may be useful to consider a quote from Julia Gillard, the first female prime minister of Australia, on the day

she was toppled in 2013. When asked whether her gender may have had something to do with the fate of her leadership, she said that it “does not explain everything about my prime ministership, nor does it explain nothing.”

From a miracle to needing one

Until the end of the third quarter of 2016, polls indicated that Ahok was comfortably ahead of any potential contender. Back then, the 2017 election was seen as a sure win for him. His lack of party support or affiliation, his double minority status and his penchant for speaking bluntly and abruptly – even to voters – did not seem to be a hindrance to his base of electoral support. Many citizens liked his “tell it as it is” style, and certainly they liked his progress in dealing with Jakarta’s long list of infrastructure bottlenecks.

Then came the video! An edited video of him apparently criticizing the Koran changed the whole tenor of the election, and the political and social climate in Jakarta. Political and other opponents finally smelled a way to crack his support. A series of massive demonstrations of a kind not seen since the heady days of the end of the Soeharto era in 1998, led by a coalition of vigilante Muslim groups supported by assorted groups of aggrieved religious puritans and mainstream Muslims who felt offended at the blasphemous criticism of their religion – especially by a nonMuslim politician. Their core demand was that the governor be prosecuted for blasphemy.

The huge scale of these demonstrations spooked and shocked the political elite, including those who were no doubt seeking electoral advantage from these demonstrations and their demands. Mainstream political leaders have long considered these exclusivist anti-pluralist groups to be minor and disorganized fringe players – “usable fools” as it were. While long willing to patronize these groups for short-term electoral advantage, it was as if some of them were now facing a discomforting possibility that it was perhaps they, not the leaders of these groups, who were the usable fools. Responses at the elite level varied. The law enforcement authorities complied dutifully with these mob demands, as the governor was soon charged with blasphemy. Even President Joko Widodo, who comes from the side of politics most keenly seen as upholding the rights and position of minorities, came out to appear with these groups in the hope this may help quell the movement.

In addition to those demonstrating on the grounds of religious outrage and solidarity, other groups also came out to protest. These included those decrying the disparities in society. Evidence during the past decade indicates a deterioration in the relative distribution of wealth in Indonesia. In terms of popular political discourse, expressions of concern about the wealth gap often constitute a “dog whistle” against the Sino-Indonesian community, given that most of the nation’s largest corporations are owned by members of the minority community. In the case of these demonstrations, the point to be made was that Ahok is also a member of that community.

A nascent pribumi (indigenous Indonesian) supremacist movement has also begun to emerge. While a surprising nonstarter as a political force since the start of the democratic era, it now appears that there are efforts to establish a potential political movement promoting the interests of indigenous Indonesians – no doubt against Sino-Indonesians – but more xenophobically against other groups, including foreigners who are seen as dominating the economy and even the political direction of the country. The more aggressive positioning of China as a military and economic power in the region in recent years should also be considered as a factor supporting the emergence of a pribumi supremacist movement. This China issue has implications that may affect countries beyond Indonesia.

Following the second massive demonstration against Ahok in December, there appears to have been a shift in thinking among the political elites. Some began to keep a distance from the leaders of these more extreme Islamist groups. Almost on cue criminal investigations were suddenly launched against the leader of the key group involved in these demonstrations. Hastily organized pluralist counterdemonstrations celebrating Indonesian diversity soon emerged. While smaller in size than the earlier sectarian demonstrations, they nonetheless suggest that the vision of a pluralist Indonesia may still be a force to move people.

The candidates and their supporters

By the close of nominations, three pairs of candidates were confirmed for the election. First was the incumbent governor, Ahok, then Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, the son of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and Anies. With the legal case against Ahok leading to a collapse in his support base, the initial beneficiary was the political newbie Agus, whose youthful good looks and polite and friendly disposition contrasted with the blunt language of Ahok.

The key objective of two-round elections with three candidates, none of whom appear able to secure 50 percent of the vote, is not to come first. Rather, it is not to come in third. In the midst of the huge political dynamics, riven by sectarian sensibilities, the Agus campaign made some rather extravagant welfare-related promises and appeared initially to gain considerable traction. Surprisingly, the more politically savvy Anies, who has been in the public light for several years, seemed destined

to run third. However, poor performances, especially during the candidate debates, by Agus demonstrated a lack of political gravitas and capacity to communicate effectively. In the lead-up to the first-round vote, voters drifted toward Anies. In the end, Agus, who gave up a promising military career for the election, suffered a huge loss, with Ahok coming in first with 43 percent of the vote and Anies a close second, with 40 percent.

In many respects, the campaigns of both Anies and Agus presented themselves as the “anti-Ahok” alternative. They tried to be polite and engaging, while presenting Ahok as blunt and rude. They presented themselves as concerned about the fate of the poor and marginalized, and Ahok as unsympathetic to the poor. Dog-whistle campaigns by other players, such as Islamic demonstrators, sought to remind voters that Ahok was an “other” – not part of the religious and racial mainstream of Jakarta. Under these circumstances, it was widely assumed that most of Agus’ voters would shift support to Anies in the second round. The second round result demonstrated that voters did just that.

Despite these broad-brush similarities in positioning, there were also differences in the support bases of Agus and Anies. For example, Agus’ appeals to the poor with an array of expansive welfare programs appeared to have had an impact. In the poorer hamlets of Jakarta, his vote was higher than average, while in the wealthier parts of Jakarta his voteAFP PHOTO/GOH CHAI HIN

was well below his overall average. The firstround results indicate a very strong negative correlation between Ahok and Agus at the hamlet level. This meant that the higher the vote for Ahok, the lower the vote for Agus. Between Agus and Anies, however, there was a modestly positive correlation. This meant that the higher the vote for Agus the higher the vote for Anies too.

The second-round results produced the quite extraordinary result in which one of the candidates, Ahok, actually secured a lower percentage of the vote in the second round than in the first round. In voting hamlet after voting hamlet, Anies picked up votes that more or less equated with the votes that had gone to Agus in the first round. This pattern was repeated in each of the constituencies that make up Jakarta. Overall, voter turnout in the second round was a very solid 78 percent, up from an already impressive 77 percent in the first round.

A phoenix rises

The surprise dismissal of Anies Baswedan from President Joko’s cabinet in July 2016 seemed to suggest, at the time, that his high-flying career may have come to a sudden end. Within a couple of months, however, he accepted what at the time appeared to be mission impossible: challenge a seemingly unbeatable candidate for governor in Jakarta and do so with support from the man he helped Joko defeat in the 2014 presidential election, former general Prabowo Subianto.

So how did he get there? Following his return to Indonesia from doctoral studies in politics in the United States, Anies soon began to establish himself as a young man with a future. After conducting work with civil society groups to promote the nation’s reform agenda, he was hired in 2007 as rector of Paramadina University, a creative young campus in Indonesia established by one of Indonesia’s foremost progressive Muslim leaders, the late professor Nurcholish Madjid. This appointment brought Anies into close contact with the chief patron of the foundation that owns the university, Vice President Jusuf Kalla. Of note, too, is that the treasurer of the Paramadina Foundation is Sandiaga Uno, Anies’ running mate and Jakarta’s next deputy governor. During his tenure as rector of Paramadina University, Anies established a reputation for promoting academic breakthroughs such as compulsory studies for all students on counter-corruption, the first campus in the world to do so. From personal observation, when Anies entered the auditorium of the campus, the assembled students greeted him more like a rock star than a rector.

Anies’ political star rose further when Kalla became Joko’s running mate on the winning 2014 presidential ticket. After serving as a key campaign adviser, Anies joined Joko’s transition team. He was appointed education and culture minister, but was dismissed in July 2016.

While much public attention has been directed at the fact that Governor Ahok was a racial minority in Indonesia, often forgotten is the fact that Anies will be the first Arab-Indonesian governor of Jakarta. Indeed, Anies is not the first from his family to achieve success in politics. His grandfather, Abdurrahman Baswedan, was an early leader of the republic and a minister in one of the first cabinets after Indonesian independence under Prime Minister Sutan Sjahrir.

Concerning trends

Beyond the aggressive mobilization of primordial sentiment there was another troubling development that played out in this election, namely the criminalization of candidates. Four of the six candidates in the election somehow ended up as either suspects in a case or brought into police stations for questioning on various cases, or faced speculation about a criminal case either against them or those close to them. Of similar note is that these cases seemed to disappear almost as quickly as they emerged as the election concluded. Most disturbingly, within one day of his defeat in the second round of the election, the direction of the court case against Ahok changed suddenly. The charge of blasphemy, argued so expansively and which had dominated the early phases of the election and effectively destroyed Ahok’s chances of victory, was suddenly changed to a much lesser charge. Oddly, the North Jakarta District Count convicted Ahok and gave him a heavier sentence – two years – than that sought by prosecutors and directed that he be sent directly to prison. Both Ahok and the prosecution have withdrawn their appeals, meaning the former governor faces at least 12 months in prison before he is eligible for parole.

Whether the issue is one of community groups bullying law enforcement authorities by threatening chaos, or whether law enforcement authorities are attempting to influence election results for some other reason are matters for wider consideration. Either issue reflects an unhealthy relationship between the legal system and the wider political system. Admittedly, the problem is not specific to Indonesia’s democratic system. The release of statements by James Comey, then-director of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, during the final days of the presidential campaign last year demonstrated that even well-established democracies need to be vigilant.

Shifing political tectonic plates

The mobilization of identity-based – particularly religious – sentiment and solidarity is nothing new in Indonesia. As noted at the outset of this essay, the role to be played by the majority Islamic faith in the public and, increasingly, private domains represents the key political divide. This remains the case today as it did in the democratic period of the1950s, and even before then. Politically, certainly at an elite level, the vision of Indonesia as a nation based upon an equality of citizenship has prevailed. But those seeking to promote the position that the majority faith, Islam, should be accorded a central position in the state and even that its adherents should occupy a special position within the national system remain very active in articulating their vision.

Since the reform era of the late 1990s, the opening of the democratic space for the citizenry to organize and promote competing visions has been taken up with vigor by those promoting a more Islamist vision for Indonesia. They do so through a variety of means and often in opposition to each other: from terrorist murder and suicide activities to vigilante bullying of perceived sinners to debates on the floors of local legislative bodies across the nation.

Finally, there are exhortations from innumerable fellowship groups promoting the value of following a “good” Muslim life. In many respects, it is the last group that is having the largest impact on society. The origins of these groups precede the democratic era, but they have certainly been assisted by the freedoms and liberties accorded by this era.


The emergence of greater popularity for an exclusively Islamist life can be seen in terms of fashion, food, finance, education and sources of news and information. The ubiquitous echo chambers of social media provide plenty of space for these communities to consolidate an identity that owes less to the pluralist values and traditions of Indonesia and more to the purist and puritanical values of faith.

Political leaders frequently tap into these groups in the view that they can be a significant and reliable source of votes. This has led to a greening of public life, a growing moral conservatism, notably among the young, with an impact while perhaps not yet at the constitutional level, certainly at the level of law and regulations. Candidates on the hustings often compete by who can dress themselves and their spouses more “Islamically,” or who can infuse more Arabic terms and phrases into their speeches or espouse support for more socially conservative values. In response, the pluralist and more urbane members of society express concern about the loss of an Indonesian identity or the loss of tolerance, or lament the excesses of social conservatism. For religious and other minorities, there are growing concerns about what role they have in society. For other minorities, there are even the most basic considerations of survival in the face of religiously inspired bullying.

Lacking at this stage is a coherent and attractive ideology that provides for an inclusive embrace of all the communities of the nation. Pancasila, the founding inclusive principles of the nation, certainly offers a valuable platform from which to create a re-energized vision for an inclusive and embracing nation. Unfortunately, being so closely associated with, and indeed co-opted, the Soeharto era, Pancasila fell out of favor (beyond pro forma and legalistic platitudes of compliance) during the early years following the fall of Soeharto. It may yet re-emerge as a substantive source of inspiration and bulwark against the steady but continuous appeals to exclusivist religious tribalism in the public domain that have emerged over the past quarter-century.

The embrace of political pluralism in Indonesia at the turn of the century provided the basis for its democratic system to emerge. The last major ideological breakthrough experienced in Indonesia was at the end of the 1960s, when young Muslim thinkers popularized a view that one can be pious but not support an Islamist political/ constitutional agenda. This provided the means for the Indonesian political system to develop a huge middle ground in its politics. In doing so, it produced a solid foundation, liberating Indonesia from the blunt binary and unbridgeable secularist-Islamist schism that continues to destabilize polities across so many Muslim societies. At this stage, however, the ideological center-left is bereft of the creative energy, the intellectual juices and connected organizational reach required to mount an effective challenge to the steady ideological drift to the right in Indonesia. Ahok’s loss and subsequent conviction and imprisonment could potentially serve as a stimulus to create the ideological breakthrough needed to reinvigorate the pluralist vision of the nation, but this would only be a first step.

The kinds of political shifts outlined above reflect a mere pendulum swing within the existing bounds of historic political contestation in Indonesia. The notion that political divisions are based not so much upon socioeconomic divides, but more along civilizational or confessional identities, is not specific to Indonesia. A similar dynamic in which electoral/party contestation is closely linked to positions regarding the role of the nation’s majority faith in the public domain can also be found in India, Israel and to an interesting extent the United States, where religion continues to inform public discourse and policy making, more so than in other Western societies.

Contemporary developments in many democracies are suggesting that the tectonic plates of political contestation may be shifting. The traditional left-right divisions are being upended as the politics of so-called populists emerge. Invariably labeled in public discourse as coming from the right, these “populist” movements capture votes from both the traditional left and right parties. Rather than trying to awkwardly fit these political movements into the traditional left-right dichotomy, it may be better to identify some of the similarities that bind these varied movements. One feature common to these movements is a desire to restore some form of status quo, whether it is US President Donald J Trump’s “Make America Great Again” or the Brexit view that Great Britain is best suited operating apart from its European neighbors. Another element is a quite introverted and isolationist view of global engagements. The view supported is that you look after your issues and I will look after mine.

Perhaps related to each of the above is a common objection to human migration, specifically to their countries. This has certainly been evident in Hungary, France and even the Netherlands. Even in Australia, a country founded by immigrants, politician Pauline Hanson, an icon for this populist movement, has spent a generation rallying against one wave of immigrants or another. One further agenda common to many of these groups relates to trade: they tend to be suspicious of or even hostile toward foreign trade, particularly free trade agreements or indeed of anything that smacks of supranationalism. In essence, these movements appear to be a rejection of globalization. They see the cold, dry winds of economic libertarianism and rationalism that have accompanied globalization as subverting their standards of living and widening levels of inequality in society.

Another common feature underlining the political culture of these movements, beyond jingoist nationalism, is a desire for “muscular” leadership. The case of Trump in the United States is perhaps the most obvious, but the popularity of President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, or certainly by Japanese standards

the second prime ministership of Shinzo Abe, India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi or even the short-lived Tony Abbott experiment in Australia, suggest that the tough guy leader has traction. Interestingly, Indonesian voters did not choose such leadership when it was offered by Prabowo Subianto in the 2014 presidential election.

So, how do these populist – or perhaps a better term is nativist –movements smash apart the traditional cleavages in politics? Under this new formulation of alliances, workers and owners of capital in globally uncompetitive industries (coal, steel and basic factory-line manufacturing in the United States) have common ground in protecting their sectors from international competition, while workers and owners of hotels and tourist facilities or high-tech enterprises face the world with more confidence and an imperative to engage. The first coalition of interests is more likely to be attracted to the anti-globalization, self-sufficiency and economic nationalist appeals of nativist movements, while the latter coalition will be more confident in embracing the global agenda. On the civilizational and cultural side of life, the former may be less worldly in terms of life and, certainly, professional experience than the second coalition of interests. Fear of the “other” may be more easily aroused among such citizens than for groups more familiar with operating functionally in a multicultural and pluralist environment.

These various nativist movements are a cry for security and the liberty of sovereign command over their communities’ future from seemingly relentless supranational forces.

The dragon in the room

This final section of the essay explores the potential impact on social cohesion and the social fabric of some societies in Southeast Asia as a result of a more muscular presence of China in the region. The phenomenal growth of China during the past 40 years, since the launch of the Four Modernizations by Deng Xiaoping, has had a profound impact on regional and wider trade patterns, and in more recent times, on capital investment flows and military projection. The regional cold war over maritime frontiers in the South China Sea is a manifestation of this.

As the power, presence and pressure of China loom ever larger over the region, there are impacts, and not only on the foreign policy interests of other countries in the region. In many countries across the region, there are notable communities of people of Chinese descent, the majority of whom are multigenerational citizens of these countries. The extent to which these communities, themselves also quite heterogeneous, are integrated into the national mainstreams varies between countries and over time. In the case of Indonesia, Sino-Indonesian citizens had been, until the democratic era, largely excluded from the political domain, their culture and language either banned or discouraged. Few were willing or able to build careers in the civil service or military. They were effectively restricted to the private sector, becoming leaders in most industries. Since the democratic era, there has been an opening of space for Sino-Indonesians to participate in all aspects of public life. In other countries in the region, the experience varies from more substantive dissolution into the societal mainstream to various forms of social and political differentiation and segregation.

This new, heavier multidimensional presence of China in the region may well test the social cohesion of these societies, as old questions regarding the “loyalty” and positioning of local Sino-minorities to their actual versus ancestral homelands are thrown up, or the issue of the strong role the local Sino-minority plays in the national economy and on matters of income equality on the basis of race. Issues such as “Chinese migration” and the need to protect the local work force from these foreign migrants may well emerge as part of domestic political discourse. All these issues will exist in addition to concerns about China’s “military intentions” in the region, and how each country seeks to deal with this issue individually or collectively.

The case of Ahok in Jakarta’s 2017 election demonstrates “otherness” being mobilized to inform and influence a political contest. The degree to which the abuse of Chinese “otherness” plays out in the domestic politics of Indonesia and other countries will be determined by how the non-Sino communities respond to dog-whistle campaigns by political entrepreneurs seeking political advantage from this cleavage, together with the strengths of the connecting tissues that exist between various communities and groups in society – including, of course, with the various Sino-communities in each society. In essence, the rise of China as a trading, financial and military power will have implications for the societies of the region far beyond these foreign policy-related issues, to have a potential impact on the core national values, indeed on the very social fabric of these regional nations.

Kevin Evans is Indonesia director of the Australia-Indonesia Center in Jakarta.

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