No permanent friends or foes in Jakarta politics

The campaign to elect Jakarta's next governor is under way with three contenders vying for the post. One only has to look at the same elections in 2012 to understand its significance. In that year, Mr Joko "Jokowi" Widodo won the contest, and two years later, he was elected as Indonesia's seventh president.

One reason for Jokowi's popularity was his leadership style: bypassing the bureaucracy, he regularly made surprise visits to the local districts, to meet people and understand their problems. For his hard work in Solo, where he was mayor from 2005 to 2012, and later as governor of Jakarta from 2012 to 2014, Indonesians voted for him to lead the country. Winning the Jakarta election is not a prerequisite for the presidency, but it has become a platform for political aspirants to prove their worth to a national audience. Before any contender can even think about winning, he must strategise and build a strong network of lobbyists, and that can mean working with foes and abandoning friends.

All contenders for the Jakarta governorship have to run in pairs. For the upcoming elections in February next year, incumbent Mr Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Chinese Christian popularly known as "Ahok", will pair up with his current deputy Djarot Saiful Hidayat. In the 2012 elections, Ahok was Jokowi's running-mate and the pair won. Ahok became Jakarta governor after Jokowi was elected President in 2014. Interestingly, Ahok and Jokowi came from different political parties. Jokowi ran as a member of PDI-P (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle), headed by Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri, while Ahok was from Gerindra (Great Indonesia Party), closely associated with former military general Prabowo Subianto. In 2014, Gerindra nominated Mr Prabowo as its presidential candidate.

In 2014, Ahok fell out with Mr Prabowo and left the party which nominated him. Initially, Ahok wanted to run in the upcoming Jakarta elections as an independent candidate. He assembled a network of volunteers called Teman Ahok (Friends of Ahok) to run the campaign for him. A few days before nomination day, Ahok sought the endorsement of PDI-P. In fact, PDI-P was initially split on whether to endorse Ahok and left it to the last minute. Ahok's candidacy was also endorsed by three other parties: Nasdem (National Democrat), Haruna (People's Conscience Party), and Golkar (Party of the Functional Groups).

The 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial candidates: (from left) Dr Anies Baswedan, Mr Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, Mr Sandiaga Uno, Dr Sylviana Murni, Mr Djarot Saiful Hidayat and Mr Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono.
The 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial candidates: (from left) Dr Anies Baswedan, Mr Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, Mr Sandiaga Uno, Dr Sylviana Murni, Mr Djarot Saiful Hidayat and Mr Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono. PHOTO: INSTAGRAM

The other two running pairs emerged out of a split between the anti-Ahok camp. The first pair are Dr Anies Baswedan and Mr Sandiaga Uno. Until July this year, Dr Anies was Minister of Culture and Education in the Jokowi Cabinet. Dr Anies' running mate, Mr Sandiaga, is a businessman.

Before nomination day, Gerindra openly backed Mr Sandiaga's candidacy, with former ministers Yusril Ihaza Mahendra and Rizal Ramli as potential running mates.

Surprisingly, Mr Prabowo, Gerindra's leader, who lost to Jokowi in the 2014 presidential election, endorses Dr Anies to be Mr Sandiaga's running mate. In 2014, Dr Anies joined Jokowi's camp and was critical of Mr Prabowo's Red and White coalition.

The third pair, Mr Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono and Dr Sylviana Murni, could add a different dimension to the race. Mr Agus is the eldest son of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is also chairman of Parti Demokrat (PD).

The Agus-Sylviana pairing could result in a second round for the governor race if no pair wins by 50 per cent of votes during the first round. Apart from PD, Mr Agus and Dr Sylviana are also endorsed by the moderate Islamic parties PAN (National Mandate Party), PKB (National Awakening Party) and PPP (United Development Party).

Mr Agus' candidacy could be a rite of passage for him, as the 38-year-old makes his name in Indonesia's national politics. This is also a signal he will one day lead PD, which needs to be revived after a poor showing in the 2014 legislative elections. However, his nomination also signals that PD has yet to move beyond the Yudhoyono family.

One issue that could potentially be played up during the campaign is race and religion. One could foresee that the Ahok-Djarot pair will receive the brunt of racialised and religious taunts, given that Ahok is a Chinese Christian contesting in a Muslim majority state. Ahok's faith was less of an issue during the 2012 Jakarta election because he was running for vice-governor and teamed with the popular Jokowi.

This is Ahok's first test at the polls for the governor post. Nevertheless, such racial and religious slurs are unlikely to weaken Ahok's chances, given the incumbent's track record, and voters' keenness to hear about the development programmes candidates can offer.

Yet if someone potentially as capable as Ahok but with Islamic credentials were to run, the incumbent could face a tough test. For example, the Anies-Sandiaga team could play up their Islamic card and intellectual credentials given Dr Anies' experience as a technocrat and Muslim scholar, and Mr Sandiaga's as a businessman. They could rally conservative Muslims in Jakarta, especially when they are backed by nationalists Gerindra and Islamist PKS (Prosperous Justice Party).

On the other hand, the Agus-Sylviana pair, as underdogs in the race, could gain traction among young voters. Mr Agus has been praised for his ability to connect better with youth. While the Agus-Sylviana pair could weaken the anti-Ahok camp, it could also garner votes from young people who would otherwise support Ahok. This, however, depends on how they run their campaign.

What is certain is that Indonesian politics will remain fluid and there will be no permanent allies or enemies. To add to this complexity, rivalries and alliances do not only exist between parties, but within the same party as well.

• The writer is a Fellow at the Iseas - Yusof Ishak Institute and researches on Singapore, Malaysian and Indonesian politics.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2016, with the headline No permanent friends or foes in Jakarta politics. Subscribe