Three-way race to govern Jakarta kicks off

(From left) Mr Anies Baswedan, incumbent Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, Mr Sandiaga Uno, Ms Sylviana Murni, Mr Djarot Saiful Hidayat and Mr Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono. While Mr Anies and Mr Sandiaga had thrown their hats into the ring earlier
(From left) Mr Anies Baswedan, incumbent Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, Mr Sandiaga Uno, Ms Sylviana Murni, Mr Djarot Saiful Hidayat and Mr Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono. While Mr Anies and Mr Sandiaga had thrown their hats into the ring earlier, Mr Agus and Ms Sylviana were a surprise and late entry from the Democratic Party. Mr Basuki and his deputy, Mr Djarot, have topped almost all popularity surveys in the lead-up to the campaign.PHOTO: INSTAGRAM

Incumbent and deputy are front runners; election may impact next presidential poll

The race to govern Jakarta officially kicked off yesterday with political watchers expecting a fiery contest in the run-up to the February polls.

Experts say the gubernatorial election may have a bearing on the next presidential race in 2019.

Leading the way in the three-way fight are the incumbents, Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama and his deputy Djarot Saiful Hidayat. Mr Basuki, or Ahok, as he prefers to be called, was deputy to then governor Joko Widodo, who is now Indonesia's seventh president.

Ahok and Mr Djarot, backed by the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party - Struggle as well as the largest coalition of political parties, have topped almost all popularity surveys in the lead-up to the campaign.

They are pitted against the Gerindra Party pair of former education minister Anies Baswedan and businessman Sandiaga Uno, and former military officer Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono - son of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono - and veteran bureaucrat Sylviana Murni.

While Mr Anies and Mr Sandiaga had thrown their hats into the ring earlier, Mr Agus and Ms Sylviana were a surprise and late entry from the Democratic Party.

The candidates have yet to unveil their campaign manifestos in detail, but expected key issues include corruption, job creation, urban renewal, as well as race and religion.

A recent survey released by pollster Saiful Mujani showed that the majority of Jakarta voters are "moderate" and do not consider religion and ethnicity as important factors in deciding whom to vote for.

Critics of Ahok have played up recent incidents between the governor and Muslim hardliners. Thousands protested against the governor two weeks ago for allegedly insulting Islam. The protest was triggered by Ahok's criticisms against his opponents who used a verse from the Quran to attack him.

A second mass protest by Muslim hardliners is being planned after Friday prayers next week.

Ahok's straight-talking, no-nonsense style in running Indonesia's capital has kept him at the top of popularity polls. But the anti-Ahok movement has often made hay of him being ethnic Chinese and Christian, and unsuitable to govern the capital of the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation.

However, many political experts, such as Mr Muradi from Padjadjaran University in Bandung, say they are unlikely to succeed in denting Ahok's bid for re-election. "The street rallies in Jakarta might look big but only about two out of every 10 of the protesters are from Jakarta," said Mr Muradi.

The head of the university's centre for political and security studies also said efforts to use Islam to undermine Ahok will not work in Jakarta, because the city's voters are a rational and practical lot.

So far, Mr Anies and Mr Sandiaga have pledged to hire more cleaners for the city if elected, while Mr Agus promised to maintain diversity in Jakarta, even though he and Ms Sylviana are both Muslims.

Mr Agus, who had left a promising military career to contest in the polls, has been seen recently courting Chinese voters in the city.

Still, there are observers who have said that issues of race and religion will threaten to turn the gubernatorial election into a test of religious tolerance in Indonesia.

A recent survey released by pollster Saiful Mujani showed that the majority of Jakarta voters are "moderate" and do not consider religion and ethnicity as important factors in deciding whom to vote for.

Although the candidates have yet to officially begin campaigning, a war of words has already erupted between Ahok and Mr Sandiaga.

The governor earlier this month accused Mr Sandiaga of having evaded taxes after the businessman applied for the tax amnesty in front of the press. "The tax amnesty is for people who cannot prove that they have paid their taxes... this proves that Pak Sandiaga has previously evaded paying taxes," said Ahok.

His comments came a day after Mr Sandiaga claimed that relatives of the governor could have benefited from his public policies, an accusation Ahok has denied.

The gubernatorial election in Jakarta on Feb 15 will be closely watched as it is historically an indicator of who may contest for the presidency in three years' time, or the contest after that in 2024.

According to Dr Leo Suryadinata, a visiting senior fellow at the Iseas - Yusof Ishak Institute, certain interest groups fear that if Ahok is re-elected, he might be invited by President Joko to be his vice-presidential candidate in 2019.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 29, 2016, with the headline 'Three-way race to govern Jakarta kicks off'. Print Edition | Subscribe