Jakarta Election: Ahok or Anies?

By Dr. Asna Husin

To outside observers the re-election of Basuki Tjahaya Purnama, a Chinese Christian best known as Ahok, as Governor of Indonesia’s capital Jakarta would be a symbol of the nation’s democratic aspirations, tolerance and moderation. Ahok is now being contested in the second round of elections taking place on April 19th by the former Education Minister Anies Baswedan. Since no candidate won a simple majority during the first round last February, the two who received the most ballots are facing off in this second round. Ahok had obtained the most votes with 42.9 percent, while the third candidate Agus Yudhoyono, son of former President Susilo Bangbang Yudhoyono lost out in the first round. For many Indonesians avidly focused on this race the clash between the populist egalitarian platform of Anies rooted in Islamic social values, with the big moneyed interests of Ahok’s business backers symbolizes the dilemma of Indonesia’s modernization.

As the capital of the world’s most populous Islamic country with nearly 90 percent Muslims among its 250 million people, Jakarta is home to well over ten million registered residents −  comprising 85 percent Muslim and 13 percent Christian citizens. In the first round of elections about 30 percent of Muslims and 97 percent of Christians in Jakarta voted for Ahok, while Anies received 45 percent of Muslim votes and only 1.5 percent of Christian ballots. Roughly 17 percent of votes went to Agus Yodhoyono, which is now up for grabs between Ahok and Anies. The initial prediction expected Anies to easily win the second round since Agus’s Muslim supporters would likely incline toward Anies.

However the situation is exceptionally complicated. Ahok is an incumbent whose performance as Governor is satisfactory to over 70 percent of Jakarta’s residents: he is perceived to be clean, effective and capable of getting things done. He is also supported by the ruling party of President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, and several other important coalition parties of the present national government. The incumbent is also championed by major media outlets and financed by Indonesia’s wealthy industrialists. Last but not least, the Governor’s enthusiasts known as ‘Friends of Ahok’ are extremely dedicated and well organized. These factors could lead to his re-election.

Yet his weaknesses are also enormous. Ahok governs in a polarizing and divisive manner who has ruled in an ‘all-right & no-wrong’ fashion, antagonizing every segment of society from the politicians in parliament, his own public officials, to the general public including the urban poor and Muslim hardliners. This is coupled with his short-temper and imprudent responses using discordant expressions − including his controversial speech last September delivered in Thousand Islands outside Jakarta which led to a legal charge of blasphemy based on his citing the Quranic verse al-Ma’idah 5:51 in order to elicit Muslim votes. The incumbent’s enforced mass evictions of slum dwellers, often without constructive dialogue and proper planning for their wellbeing, and his plan for reclamation of Jakarta Bay, in some cases against the laws and at the expense of environmental considerations, contribute to his being perceived as the Governor for the rich and powerful. His being questioned in a couple of Jakarta corruption cases has also been interpreted by some that he is not as clean as he portrays himself.

In short, justice, well being of the most vulnerable, and social unity was not initially highlighted in Ahok’s earlier campaign. Instead he focused on his clean government and swift bureaucracy, as well as achievements in normalizing Jakarta’s river floods, removal of slums, and distribution of student smart cards and health cards. These two sets of cards are actually a pro-poor initiative but they were not properly packaged as such until late in the second round of this campaign.   

Ahok’s competitor Anies Baswedan, on the other hand, consciously presents himself as a moral champion whose message is unity and social justice. He tags his campaign with the theme: “Wellbeing for all: Advance of the city, Happiness of its people.” This message is translated into a number of important programs including quality education for all, health care, inexpensive prices for basic staples, affordable housing for low income residents with zero down-payment, and job creation though OK OCE (One Kecamatan [Sub-District] One Center of Entrepreneurship).

Two of his innovative campaign promises attract attention. Spearheaded by his vice- governor running mate Sandiaga Uno, Anies promises to create 200,000 new entrepreneurs if elected. To convince voters Sandiaga launched OK OCE in December 2016, and as of today has trained 12,000 Jakartans to become new economic players. Anies not only promises training, but also apprenticeship, capital, and distribution and promotion of their products through cooperative OK OCE Marts with the first one opened this month on April 1st. His housing program with zero down-payment also received great coverage. Although Anies was initially criticized heavily for this program by Ahok, the former was able to defend it convincingly forcing Ahok to adjust some of his own campaign promises to match those of his opponent. These programs, along with Anies’s rejection of reclamation and unlawful evictions from slums, permit Anies to package himself as the candidate of national unity achieved by social justice and caring for the most vulnerable.

Anies’s candidacy is also augmented by several other factors. He is a thinker who generally delivers his ideas and campaign speeches with clarity and eloquence, as well as his personal integrity, pleasant face and calm dispassionate nature, all help him among educated and undecided voters. Being a Muslim challenging a non-Muslim candidate is also a big plus for Anies. Many of his supporters are Muslims including some of the most passionate ones who would vote for anyone, “so long as not Ahok.”

Like Ahok, Anies also faces challenges. He is being labeled by different groups for various ends. Some persons make him out to be secretly a Shi`ite, others claim he is a Wahabi, and yet others brand him a liberal − forcing Anies to defend himself from these insinuations. The former Education Minister who gained his M.A. from the University of Maryland and a Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University, is now being accused of selling out his initial stand favoring religious pluralism. Some of these charges arose after his meeting with the head of the conservative group Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), and for the support he has received from politically committed Muslims who openly denounce electing a non-Muslim. In spite of such criticisms, Anies appears to be overcoming these accusations and succeeding in portraying himself as a moderate Muslim who would unite entire segments of the Jakartan population. His unifying message, coupled with his theme of social justice, is attracting the attention of some Chinese leaders and non-Muslims who recently came forward in support of his candidacy. In the last few days before the election most polls show Anies leading Ahok by a few points, although it is still too close to predict the winner of this hotly contested election.

Jakarta’s governor campaign is very significant for Indonesia. The election in this central province with its six mayoral districts is clearly a stepping stone for the next presidential election in 2019. Ahok enjoys the support of Jokowi’s ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), while Anies has the backing of the influential former general Prabowo Subianto and his Gerindra Party along with the Islamic Welfare and Justice Party. Prabowo himself narrowly lost the last presidential election in 2014 to Jokowi. Both men will most likely compete again for the country’s top post in 2019, so winning Jakarta is an important index and test for their prospective presidential battle. The Jakarta contest is also a trial between the populist Islamic egalitarian program and the wealthy interests of entrenched elites, serving as an indicator for the nation’s future direction.

Dr. Asna Husin teaches at Ar-Raniry Islamic University in Banda Aceh;

she is currently a visiting researcher at Nonviolence International in Washington, D.C.

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