News analysis

Anies takes City Hall... Istana next?

He was just sworn in yesterday, but word on the street is that Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan is already eyeing the presidency, currently held by Mr Joko Widodo, himself a former governor of Indonesia's capital.

Mr Anies has never publicly announced that he would run in the next presidential election due in 2019, at least not recently. But many observers believe that it was always on his mind, especially after he was unceremoniously removed by Mr Joko as minister for education and culture after less than two years on the job.

"We shall see if he completes his five-year term as governor, but I doubt he can resist making a play for the presidency in 2019," said a senior Istana insider who asked not to be named. "While he has not said so recently, notice how he didn't deny he would run for president when asked."

That Mr Anies harbours presidential ambitions is probably the worst-kept secret in Indonesian politics. In fact, his Istana dream can be traced back to how he had tried, but failed to make headway with the Democratic Party in the lead-up to the 2014 election, won by Mr Joko, better known as Jokowi.

While his sacking in July last year was a career low for Mr Anies, the former rector of Jakarta's prestigious Paramadina University also managed to get back in the game rather quickly.

Shortly after being reshuffled out of Mr Joko's Cabinet, Mr Anies announced his candidacy for Jakarta governor on the opposition ticket backed by the President's rival and Gerindra Party chief Prabowo Subianto, no less.

By April this year, he and his running mate, businessman Sandiaga Uno, had won the gubernatorial race, defeating popular Chinese politician Basuki Tjahaja Purnama at the polls.

Their victory, however, was marred by a racially charged and divisive campaign, which some said almost ripped apart the social fabric of not just the capital, but also Indonesia as a country.

Many also questioned the way Mr Anies courted conservative Muslim voters, including Islamic hardliners, and rode on a wave of rising religiosity to victory over his rival, who is not only from the minority Chinese ethnic group, but also a Christian.

However, the shocking loss of Basuki, popularly known as Ahok, did not really create momentum for Mr Anies' purported bid for the presidency in the months ahead.

Surveys by pollsters released in recent weeks still put his electability as far lower than that of Mr Joko, or Mr Prabowo, who is also widely expected to contest in the next presidential election.

All eyes are now on Mr Anies and his deputy, not just to see if they can run the capital as well as their predecessors, but also to see if they can unite a city still divided by the fall of Basuki.

Mr Anies has said reconciliation will be at the top of his agenda when he takes office, even agreeing to visit Basuki - who is serving time in jail after being convicted of insulting Islam.

He also said it was time to deliver on his campaign pledges, which include creating jobs, increasing home ownership among the poor, and stopping a major land reclamation project by the government north of Jakarta.

His insistence on blocking the land reclamation - which he claims disrupts the livelihoods of local fishermen - could be used to kick off his run for the Istana, said Mr Nirwono Yoga, a political expert from Trisakti University.

The Jakarta Bay project is managed by the central government through a 1995 presidential decree, which can be revoked only by a sitting president.

"If Anies wants a moratorium on the land reclamation, he could tell the people that to deliver on the campaign promise, he must be president, because only then can he revoke a presidential decree," said Mr Nirwono.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2017, with the headline 'First stop, City Hall; next stop, the Istana?'. Print Edition | Subscribe