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Candidates mark peaceful end to Jakarta election campaign

A divisive and tense gubernatorial election campaign ends with a whimper rather than a bang

Audience members take phone snaps of the candidates onstage during the final gubernatorial election debate on Feb. 10 in Jakarta (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

JAKARTA -- A tumultuous election campaign for the job of running one of the world's biggest, most traffic-clogged and flood-prone cities drew to a relatively placid close over the final weekend before the Feb. 15 vote.

Candidates in the race for the Jakarta governorship ended a last televised debate by grinning cheek-to-cheek in a group selfie photograph. As staged as it was, it was a rare cordial moment in a combative campaign. It came the day before Islamist groups held a last-ditch rally against the sitting governor, who they accuse of blasphemy.

The rally drew a much smaller turnout than the hundreds of thousands of people who flocked to two similar protests in late 2016 against the incumbent governor, adding to the sense that the contentious election campaign had left participants drained.

"It has been divisive but I am happy that the debate in the end is focusing on policies and programs, it takes the tensions down a bit," said Sandiaga Uno, a candidate for vice governor and running mate of Anies Baswedan, one of two challengers seeking to oust the embattled incumbent, Bakuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as "Ahok."

Governor of Jakarta Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as "Ahok," and running mate Djarot Saiful Hidayat meet supporters after a televised Feb. 10 candidate debate in Jakarta. (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

Uno spoke with the Nikkei Asian Review at the close of the final televised candidate debate on Feb. 10, during which candidates jousted over topics such as public transport, women's rights, drug abuse and housing.

Purnama, an outsider in Jakarta's political establishment, succeeded Joko "Jokowi" Widodo as governor in 2014 when a wave of grassroots support propelled Widodo to the presidency. The soft-spoken furniture salesman from the central Java city of Surakarta became the first candidate from outside the old dynastic or army elites to win leadership of the country.

In the wake of that landmark victory, Purnama took the reins of the capital -- a rare elevation for a Christian of Chinese descent in Indonesia's overwhelmingly Muslim-dominated governing ranks.

But Purnama's prospects of staying in the job after February have been undermined by accusations that he insulted Islam, with comments seen as critical of the Quran. The alleged blasphemy in turn sparked the biggest demonstrations seen in Jakarta since the ousting of the Suharto autocracy in 1997-98.

A Dec. 2 mass protest in the heart of Jakarta saw Widodo make a surprise appearance onstage with the protest leaders. Widodo's head-turning intervention -- with the appearance that he was switching sides -- was seen in some quarters as dashing the re-election prospects of his old ally and former deputy, Purnama. The protests were led by the Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI, a group known for campaigning to have Christian churches closed and for "raiding" bars and nightclubs.

Purnama's support has rebounded in recent weeks, according to opinion surveys, making the incumbent the likely poll topper on Feb. 15. But political analysts say it seems unlikely he can pass the 50% needed to win in the first round, meaning that a run-off is probable.

Pre-vote polling suggests that the run-off would pit Purnama against Anies Baswedan, who in turn would become the favorite to end Purnama's controversial three years running Jakarta. Supporters of the third candidate, Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, son of the former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, are more likely to back Baswedan against Purnama in any run-off, say analysts.

"If Ahok fails to win in the first run the two losers might unite on the basis of religion," said Wimar Witoelar, a Jakarta political commentator.

Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, one of three candidates vying for the governorship of Jakarta, speaks to media before a TV debate on Feb. 10 (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

Ex-president Yudhoyono senior made his own melodramatic contribution to the campaign -- possibly denting his son's prospects in the process -- by tweeting maudlin complaints about the current government.

In late 2016, Yudhoyono publicly denied that he orchestrated the Islamist protests against Purnama to benefit Agus's election prospects. Since then, conspiracy theories have swirled about what many saw as a plot to undermine Purnama's election prospects using legal action and street protests.

Regardless of the motivations behind the anti-Ahok push, Purnama was clearly affected, with his campaign schedule interrupted by demands for several court appearances over the blasphemy charges, while his two Muslim rivals sought to capitalize on his woes by citing Purnama's evictions of squatters and slum clearances.

Divide and rule?

Indonesia's 210 million Muslims make up the biggest Islamic population of any country, though the application of the faith in Indonesian society and politics is typically described as "moderate." More than 30 million Indonesians are Christians of various denominations, and an estimated 3% of the 250 million population is, like Purnama, of Chinese descent.

But the divisive Jakarta campaign has given an opportunity for populist and nationalist politicians hoping to undermine Widodo.

"The local election in Jakarta is indeed polarizing society into antagonizing camps, and we should blame political elites who bring in religious and racial sentiments in their campaign activity, sentiments which already have it seeds in our society," said Titi Anggraini, head of the election advocacy group Perludem.

VIPs in the audience front row, including Fadli Zon, sing Indonesia's national anthem before the Feb. 10 candidate debate for Jakarta's gubernatorial election (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

With Agus Yudhoyono's campaign faltering, and alongside his father's prospects of spawning another Indonesian political dynasty, the beneficiary could be one of Indonesia's long established elite families.

The surprise election victory of a brash nationalist in the U.S. in the form of President Donald Trump has seemingly revived prospects for the former general and presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto to return to the fray after losing to Widodo in 2014 -- a result Prabowo initially refused to accept despite Widodo's substantial margin of victory.

"Prabowo is going to run again for 2019. For sure," Fadli Zon, deputy speaker of parliament and Prabowo's long-time friend and protege, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Widodo triumphed over the gruff, nationalist Prabowo, despite the former general's attempts to smear him as a "closet Christian" and his strident pledges to take Indonesia on a more nationalistic path. The outcome was seen as a landmark in Indonesian politics, heralding the onset of a more egalitarian and transparent mode of governance in a country of stark wealth inequality and often lurid corruption scandals involving officials.

After a shaky start, Widodo has established firmer control of government and successfully garnered the support of parties that previously opposed him. But the Jakarta campaign, along with the rise of populists in the West and in the neighboring Philippines, have given Widodo's would-be challengers a sense that things are changing.

The Trump factor

Zon's Great Indonesia Movement Party, together with Prabowo, are backing the Anies Baswedan campaign to take control of Jakarta. "They [the Baswedan ticket] are reasonable and rational and they are very polite to the people and that is important," Zon said, throwing a jab at Purnama's perceived bluntness.

Widodo's decision to remove Baswedan in a mid-2016 cabinet reshuffle surprised many given that the prominent academic was involved in Widodo's "hope-and-change" election campaign. Winning the Feb. 15 Jakarta election would position Baswedan as a viable running mate for Prabowo in 2019, and of course, if that run was successful, could in time allow Baswedan have a run at the top job himself.

Zon meanwhile was pilloried in Indonesia for posing alongside Trump in New York in September 2015, a time when the idea of a Trump presidency was unthinkable. But Trump's astonishing success -- despite some of the most incendiary campaign rhetoric heard in any election -- as well as his tumultuous first weeks in office appear to have given his allies in Indonesia a lift.

Hary Tanoesoedibjo, Trump's Indonesian billionaire business partner, has not ruled out running for president -- and as a Chinese-Indonesian, he will be watching how Purnama fares on Feb. 15.

Candidate Anies Basdewan speaking onstage during the final gubernatorial election debate on Feb. 10 in Jakarta (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

For those hoping to end Purnama's tenure in Jakarta as a prelude to a tilt at running the country, Trump's success means that nationalism seems viable again. Zon has already adapted Trump's signature campaign slogan, tweeting recently that his party wanted to "Make Indonesia Great Again."

"It was just a tweet," Zon said, laughing. "But why not? He [Trump] is doing good for America to protect the interests of the American people, and my party is the Great Indonesia Movement Party."

For many Indonesians -- whatever their take on Purnama's sharp tongue and outsider status -- the surge in pious campaigning against his alleged blasphemy is now appearing more like a tiresome orchestrated campaign against Purnama.

The Jakarta election campaign, with all its ructions, was "divisive by design," noted commentator Wimar Witoelar. "Much of the steam has gone out because of the lack of viable choices and the majority finding the politics artificial," he added.

"The number of people involved in the [Feb.11] rally is decreasing because people are getting tired of this kind of politics," added Titi Anggraini.

Candidates appear to be getting similar feedback from voters -- even those who would benefit from Purnama's ousting. "They want us to solve their everyday problems, which are jobs and education," said Uno.

Subdued protest

On Feb. 11, the day after all six candidates for governor and vice governor held their final TV debate, around 70,000 people gathered at Jakarta's biggest mosque for prayers and speeches calling for voters to choose a Muslim candidate. The crowd was noticeably smaller and more subdued than at prior demonstrations in late 2016, one of which ended in riots near Indonesia's presidential palace.

"I came at 3 am. [ahead of the start of morning prayer] and I agree with all the speeches," said one of the devotees, who asked not to be named, speaking around 12 hours after the prayer rally started. As the crowd ebbed away, the stragglers stretched on mats chatting and munching on snacks, or taking selfies with the giant Istiqlal mosque and nearby Jakarta cathedral as backdrops.

The diminished turnout could be connected to FPI leader Habib Rizieq's problems with law enforcement agencies. He faces charges over allegations that he blasphemed Christianity and insulted Indonesia's constitution. He is also the subject of a scandal over purported communications with a divorcee over the WhatsApp application. Rizieq and supporters dismiss the charges and scandals as smears -- but either way it amounts to a rapid plummet for Rizieq from his Dec. 2 peak, when even Widodo felt obliged to join him on-stage in Jakarta, fist-pumping and chanting "Allahu Akbar" to an ecstatic, rain-soaked crowd of nearly half a million people.

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