Residents of Indonesia’s sprawling capital city went to the polls last Wednesday to elect a new governor, in a contest of national importance: both as a test of pluralism and a dry run for parliamentary and presidential polls in 2019.
Based on exit polls, generally a reliable indicator of election outcomes in Indonesia, incumbent governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, ubiquitously know by his nickname Ahok, won approximately 43% of the vote; a majority but short of the 50% needed to win at the first time of asking. Ahok will now participate in a second round run-off on 19 April against Anies Baswedan, a former education minister who looks to have come a close second with around 40% of the vote. Agus Yudhoyono, son of the former president, is out of the race after coming third with 17%.
Pluralism under scrutiny but not yet defeated
An ethnically Chinese Christian in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority state, Ahok was automatically elevated to governor of Jakarta when his running mate in 2012, Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo, won the 2014 presidential election. This was therefore the first time that the ‘double minority’ incumbent had faced the electorate as a candidate for the city’s top job and – not so long ago – he looked a shoo-in to win.
That was before a controversial campaign speech Ahok delivered in September, which criticised his detractors for attacking his suitability to lead by virtue of a Koranic verse that some interpret as preventing Muslims from choosing a non-Muslim leader. A doctored video of his speech did the rounds in what is the social media capital of the world, unleashing a wave of mass protests organised by an alliance of conservative Islamists groups.
The authorities buckled in the face of pressure from this vocal minority, leading to Ahok being fast-tracked to criminal trial under Indonesia’s draconian blasphemy law. Sensing an opening that they could exploit, his political opponents resorted to identity politics and actively courted groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front, vigilante rent-a-thugs spearheading the anti-Ahok protests. Ahok’s polls rating nosedived before recovering somewhat in the wake of three impressive TV debate performances. This turbulent backdrop ensures the gubernatorial election is a litmus test of pluralism and tolerance, which some argue is under attack from a rising tide of Islamic conservatism.
Based on the exit polls, Ahok managed to secure nearly 2.4 million votes out of a 7.2 million-strong electorate, despite his campaign having being continually undermined by black propaganda alongside a series of highly publicised court appearances. This impressive showing suggests that Ahok’s programme of infrastructure development, bureaucratic reform and public service delivery trumped sanctimonious demands to vote along sectarian lines, at least in the first round. However, the campaign could yet turn uglier still, as religious hard-liners seek to characterise the head-to-head run off as a binary choice between a Muslim and a non-believer.
All still to play for
While much can happen between now and April, Ahok faces an uphill struggle to attract enough votes to secure victory against Anies Baswedan in the second round. For one, Ahok is a polarising figure and his brash style upsets the sensibilities of some. People tend to either fervently support or loathe him, making him an unlikely second preference. Much will depend on where supporters of the defeated third place candidate, Agus Yudhoyono rally to, with the Anies camp looking like the more natural fit. Both of Ahok’s opponents in the race won support by opposing slum clearances carried out under his watch, a prerequisite to his traffic and flood amelioration efforts that have won many plaudits among the city’s middle class.
Ahok defeat would be a setback for Jokowi
Who wins the contest to run the capital has national implications. The contest is a precursor to parliamentary and presidential elections in 2019, with the gubernatorial candidates backed by respective elite factions and their political machines. Ahok is one of the president’s closest allies and both politicians are cut from the same cloth: rising up through local politics on the basis of administrative competency and programmatic politics rather than wealth or family name. Ahok has the backing of the president’s political party and its matriarch, former-president Megawati Sukarnoputri.
Ahok’s opponent in the second round, Anies Baswedan, is supported by Prabowo Subianto; the ex-general who was narrowly defeated by Jokowi in the 2014 presidential election and still harbours leadership ambitions of his own. Former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono also remains a powerbroker despite his son’s defeat in the first round.
As Jokowi’s meteoric rise demonstrates, the governorship of Jakarta can be a springboard to high office. Defeat for Ahok could see the Baswedan-Subianto tag-team emerge to challenge Jokowi in 2019 and embolden the president’s opponents to foment trouble in the meantime. While an Ahok victory would further strengthen the president’s power base (with the caveat that this advantage would unravel if Ahok is found guilty of blasphemy and thus removed from office) and validate the policy agenda that Ahok and Jokowi have championed jointly since 2012.
Policy taking a back seat to politics
The prospect of a further two months of campaigning ahead of the second round run-off is the last thing the central government wanted. This bitterly contested gubernatorial campaign has proved a major distraction for the Jokowi administration and its bid to improve the country’s economic competitiveness.
The roll-out of a raft of economic reforms centred on deregulation and improving the ease of doing business appears to have lost momentum in recent months, a dynamic which is partially responsible for moderating GDP growth and FDI inflows in 2016-Q4. Instead, the president has been forced to expend both time and political capital managing the mass demonstrations, legal proceedings and elite machinations that have characterised the gubernatorial campaign. With the timeframe between the end of this high-stakes race and the beginning of the 2019 election season likely to be a narrow one, the window for the president to turn make good on his reform agenda is similarly closing.
By Hugo Brennan - Politics Analyst, Asia