New governor faces uphill struggle to unite Jakarta after divisive election

By: Euan Black - Posted on: May 4, 2017 | Current Affairs

Anies Baswedan, the former minister for education and culture beholden to Indonesia’s entrenched political interests, must heal the scars of religious intolerance and address crippling inequality, says Bonar Tigor Naipospos of the Jakarta-based Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace

Anies Baswedan, Jakarta's next governor, displays his ink marked fingers after voting at a polling station in Indonesia's capital on 19 April 2017. Photo: EPA/Adi Weda
Anies Baswedan, Jakarta’s next governor, displays his ink marked fingers after voting at a polling station in Indonesia’s capital on 19 April 2017. Photo: EPA/Adi Weda

The recent Jakarta election has often been framed as a choice between pluralism and political Islam. To what extent do you agree with this framing?

I agree that the election was a contestation between pluralism and radical Islam. But more important is that we are seeing the reintroduction of what is known as the New Order, which is the politics of the Suharto era. Because who is really behind the Islamist groups? It’s Prabowo Subianto and the youngest son of [former president] Suharto, Tommy Suharto.

What does a return to Indonesia’s establishment politics of old mean for Jakarta and Indonesia more broadly?

The election in Jakarta is Prabowo’s first step towards contesting the presidential elections in 2019. He is using the elections to test the water and he wants to make sure that he gets support from the Islamic groups.

Do you think that President Joko Widodo made the wrong move when he stepped down as governor of Jakarta to run for president in 2014 – because he’s allowed the old guard to win back power in the gubernatorial election?

Well from the pro-democracy movement, at the time, Jokowi was the strong contender against Prabowo because we did not want Prabowo to come back again and take power because Prabowo, for many human rights activists, is not only responsible for human rights abuses in the past, but also engages in corrupt business practices.

So, if he returned to power, the New Order will come back: this is what we do not want. This is why, at the time, Jokowi was the right choice. He took the first step by becoming Jakarta governor and then he ran for the presidency.

In 2019, we will assess the situation like in 2014. Today, in Jakarta, we only have two options: support the side which is committed to pluralism and diversity or support the groups who want to use [conservative] Islamic groups to bring back the New Order era. That’s the clear choice. In Jakarta, we have lost the first battle, but the second battle in 2019 is for the future generation to decide.

To what extent were the religious divisions in Jakarta already present prior to the bitterly contested election?

I honestly only believe that it was politicians exploiting this issue for them to gain power. Anies Baswedan comes from a moderate background, but the question is: how can he distance his administration from the [hardline] Islamic groups while catering to their demands? That’s the challenge for him, because Jakarta is a multicultural city, occupied by people from lots of different ethnic backgrounds and socio-economic classes, so whoever runs an administration in Jakarta must deal with all the stakeholders who are living in Jakarta. He cannot only satisfy the radical groups, he must also take into account people from all backgrounds, especially the business community.

Do you think then that he might actually disappoint the conservative Islamic voters who actually voted him into power?

I think so, yes.

And what must he do to unite the people after such a divisive campaign?

If he wants to embrace all stakeholders in Jakarta, first, he must show that he is really committed to diversity and pluralism. He must distance himself from the radical groups.

What are some of the other challenges that Anies is going to face when he is sworn in in October?

Well, first is of course how to make a change in Jakarta – not only in terms of its infrastructure and economic development, but also inequality. In Jakarta the gap between rich and poor is high. That’s the main problem. If he cannot meet the demands of the poor, he will have many problems.

Ahok was appreciated for what he did; if you look at surveys from many, many institutions, Ahok’s satisfaction rate in Jakarta was more than 65%. So it’s quite strange that we had these results, that the people did not want to elect him despite being satisfied with his policies. This is because of religious contestation and also because people want stability and security. If they see protests and demonstrations every day, they will feel insecure and scared. They have voted pragmatically: “OK, Ahok might be a good governor, but we want the situation to be stable.”

Ahok has been criticised for his forced evictions of makeshift houses in poor neighbourhoods. What will his legacy be?

The main legacy is a clean bureaucracy.

Was that one of the reasons why he was forced out?

Yes.