What went (not) right in the Jakarta election: The Jakarta Post Columnist

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama and his wife Veronica showing ballot papers at a polling station during the final-round of the Jakarta governor election in Jakarta on April 19, 2017.
Basuki Tjahaja Purnama and his wife Veronica showing ballot papers at a polling station during the final-round of the Jakarta governor election in Jakarta on April 19, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Jakartans had their final say after a long and exhausting election season. It is pretty much a landslide victory for Anies Baswedan, the challenger, over Basuki Tjahaja "Ahok" Purnama, the incumbent governor.

Pending the official manual counting of approximately 7 million votes, quick counts and exit polls by various pollsters have established the fact that the margin ranges between 12 to 16 per cent in favour of Anies. A quick count conducted by Kompas showed Anies garnered 58 per cent of the vote against Ahok's 42 per cent.

The election season, which was marred by a smear campaign, invoking religious and racial sentiment, led many to believe that ugly campaigning worked for the benefit of Anies, who had presented himself as a moderate Muslim with an international outlook throughout his academic and community development career.

This is in stark contrast to Ahok, who is a double minority: a Christian of Chinese descent. Since day one of his governorship, Ahok has been faced with challenges from especially conservative Muslim groups that demanded he be removed from his position. They found a rallying call when Ahok was charged with blasphemy, which certainly hurt his reelection campaign.

The frustration among Ahok voters is understandable, but it is probably based on false assumptions. First, there was a widely held assumption that being in the capital city, with a higher level of education and relatively better income compared to other places in Indonesia, voters in Jakarta would act "rationally."

However, research actually suggests the opposite. Karen Kauffman reported in her book The Urban Voters: Group Conflict and Mayoral Voting Behaviour in American Cities ( 2004 ) that big cities were actually more prone to the mobilisation of ethnic and/or religious sentiment. She found that in the past three decades, for example, New York and Los Angeles had experienced heated campaigns in every mayoral election exactly along the similar lines. The reason is that cities naturally consist of immigrants (or pendatang in the Indonesian context) who need to reaffirm their original identities from time to time.

Second, being "rational" has loosely been defined as voting based not on religious or racial lines, but rather decided by the rational examination of candidates' performance. Certainly Ahok has a comparative advantage as an incumbent governor. He was also a former district head in Bangka Belitung. Ahok once also served as a lawmaker.

In terms of governing, Anies is therefore no match for Ahok. One interesting fact prior to the balloting is that various pollsters found that the level of satisfaction toward the performance of Ahok as governor had been consistently high, hovering around almost 80 per cent. Yet, his approval rating/electability has been stuck between 30 per cent and 40 per cent.

With this kind of assumption, being "rational" means voters would vote after carefully examining the track records of their candidates. Ahok's team should have realised that given the fact that there had been such a significant discrepancy between the level of satisfaction and the level of electability, voters would not vote retrospectively. Emphasising Ahok's performance is necessary but apparently insufficient.

In this regard, it seems there is another type of Jakartan/Indonesian voter: prospective voters. They are those who vote after weighing whether a candidate's promise is within reach, normally this is coming from inexperienced candidates. Anies has been skillfully targeting these prospective voters through various campaign promises. As a matter of fact, prospective voters helped Jokowi win the presidential election in 2014 against a more experienced opponent.

Third, in early 2016, a Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) opinion poll saw that Ahok's electability rating was about 40 per cent when there were not yet candidates that had officially declared their intention to challenge him. It simply means that the base of Ahok's constituency had not been expanding.

Yet, it seems that Ahok's team was very slow to switch their narrative to engage prospective voters from other ideological persuasions. While Anies' cosying up to many conservative Muslim groups is worrisome, Ahok's laser focus on this issue ironically turned off some moderates, some of whom were the supporters of Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, the third candidate in the first round of the election.

With such a wide margin in the results of the quick counts, Anies has a clear mandate from the voters to govern Jakarta for the next five years. The ball is now in Anies' court. There are several things he needs to consider. First, as mentioned earlier, the level of satisfaction for Ahok's performance has been consistently high. It simply means that although he has defeated the incumbent, voters will check him using the high standard of governance that has been set by Ahok. Transparency, anticorruption efforts, people-oriented/service-oriented bureaucracy, are among the issues that Ahok got most of the credit for.

Second, the question of religious tolerance needs to be addressed by Anies. Jakarta is the political barometer for politicians setting their sights on the 2019 general election. Using the religious card is a dangerous game to play.

Anies has only one year to reaffirm his commitment to pluralism, an issue he campaigned for prior to the election as a social activist. Within one year, in 2018, politicians and political parties will start campaigning for the 2019 election. The social wound resulting from the 2017 Jakarta election needs time to heal. One year certainly is not enough unless the top leadership in Jakarta makes every effort to do so.

The takeaway from the 2017 runoff election was that the presence of two candidates with opposing views could deliver benefits to voters, who saw a clash of ideas and proposals on how to improve lives in Jakarta. Ahok with his developmentalist view and businessfriendly proposal and Anies with his staunch view against reclamation. This has become the source of debate that could invite regular citizens to get involved with issues that will ultimately matter to them. The voters are the true winners in this election.

The writer is executive director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).