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The highs and lows of Jakarta's next governor

Jakarta gubernatorial candidate Anies Baswedan casting his vote with wife Fery Farhati Ganis and daughter Mutiara Annisa in the election in South Jakarta, Indonesia, last Wednesday.
Jakarta gubernatorial candidate Anies Baswedan casting his vote with wife Fery Farhati Ganis and daughter Mutiara Annisa in the election in South Jakarta, Indonesia, last Wednesday.PHOTO: REUTERS

Dubbed 'jumping flea' for switching sides, former Islamic scholar promises to ' serve all Jakarta residents'

It was a remarkable week for former Islamic scholar and academic Anies Baswedan, considering his stop-start political career.

Once the rector of Jakarta's prestigious Paramadina University and sacked as culture and education minister last July, the 47-year-old on Wednesday claimed victory after a divisive contest to be governor of Jakarta.

Speaking to supporters after quick counts of votes gave him the win, he said the election was a "historical moment as it marks the beginning of an era".

Mr Anies won the gubernatorial race on the opposition ticket backed by Gerindra Party chief Prabowo Subianto. Many attributed his victory to his blatant courting of conservative Muslim voters, including Islamic hardliners.

His latest choice of political bedfellows unnerved some observers although detractors were not surprised, saying that he always had a colourful past, politically speaking.

Mr Anies first came into prominence, earning hero status almost, after he initiated a programme in 2009 to improve education in Indonesia's remote areas.

They note that he traded the Democratic Party's blue for the red of the Indonesian Democratic Party - Struggle, when its candidate for the presidency in 2014, Mr Joko Widodo, was gaining popularity heading to the polls.

That earned him the nickname "Kutu Loncat", or jumping flea, an expression used to refer to a person who likes to switch jobs, or sides.

Today, he dons the white of Gerindra, the party led by Mr Prabowo, who was Mr Joko's main challenger for the nation's top job in the last presidential election. While campaigning in that election, Mr Anies chastised Mr Prabowo publicly.

Many believe the next Jakarta governor still harbours presidential ambitions after having failed to make headway with the Democrats leading up to the 2014 race, and speculation persists that he hopes to make the jump from City Hall to the Istana in 2019.

But Mr Prabowo, who himself fancies a second jab at the nation's top job, has put paid to Mr Anies' Istana dream, saying that he would serve out his five-year term as Jakarta governor. The next presidential election is due in two years, in 2019.

Mr Anies was a late starter in Indonesian politics, having entered the fray less than four years ago. He told The Straits Times in 2013 when he was competing as a Democrat: "Someone asked me, 'You are clean, why would you join politics, which is full of problems?'

"I replied, 'Why should only people with problems join politics? Doors should be opened wider for the good people to join politics.'"

His quick rise came on the back of two presidents - Mr Joko and his predecessor, Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is chairman of the Democratic Party.

Mr Anies first came into prominence, earning hero status almost, after he initiated a programme in 2009 to improve education in Indonesia's remote areas. Dubbed Indonesia Mengajar, or Indonesia Teaches, it brought top graduates and professionals as volunteers to teach primary school pupils for a year. Mr Anies was actively involved in wooing volunteers, 600 of whom have been sent to 17 remote areas such as Papua and North Maluku.

Despite this success, Mr Anies did not manage to further his career with the Democrats and quickly moved to join Mr Joko's campaign as his spokesman. It was during this time that he publicly attacked Mr Prabowo, denouncing him for cosying up to extremist groups.

During an election rally in 2014, Mr Anies charged that campaign promises made by Mr Prabowo seemed to indicate that the former general supported Indonesia's pluralism. "But in fact, Prabowo accommodated and cosied up with extremist groups like FPI," he said.

FPI is the Bahasa Indonesia acronym for the Islamic Defenders' Front, the hardline group that rallied against outgoing governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, whom Mr Anies bested at the polls last week.

Mr Anies was appointed culture and education minister after Mr Joko was inaugurated as President in October 2014, but found himself dismissed suddenly last July after just 20 months in office.

A palace source said this was because he had failed to complete the distribution of Smart Cards that would offer cash grants to poor students across Indonesia, a key campaign promise and social-levelling strategy of Mr Joko.

Many say Mr Anies was able to defeat Mr Basuki, a Chinese and Christian, by playing the religion card, along with the veiled support of conservative Muslims and hardliners such as the FPI which led street protests - some of which turned violent - against the incumbent governor leading up to the polls.

But Mr Anies has been quick to quell the sectarian tensions that dominated the elections, saying: "I assure you that I will be a good leader not just for our voters, or just the Muslim population. Anies and Sandiaga (Uno, his running mate) will serve all Jakarta residents.

"Our focus is social justice, ending inequality, and our commitment is to safeguard diversity and unity in Jakarta."

Mr Anies, who is married and a father of four, is of Arab lineage and the grandson of the late Abdurrahman Baswedan, who was deputy minister for information under Indonesia's first president, Sukarno.

He is a Fulbright scholar and has a doctorate in political science from Northern Illinois University as well as a master's in public policy from the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.

Foreign Policy magazine voted him one of the world's top 100 public intellectuals in 2008.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 24, 2017, with the headline 'The highs and lows of Jakarta's next governor'. Print Edition | Subscribe