February 18, 2017 9:10 pm JST
Elizabeth Pisani

Jakarta rejects rent-a-mob politics, for now

Gubernatorial contest sees first-round gains for candidates that focus on everyday lives

Jakarta Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, center, poses with family after voting in Jakarta's Feb. 15 gubernatorial elections. (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

As populist politicians sweep to victory around the globe, the world's third-largest democracy, Indonesia, is bucking the trend. There, politicians who have shown they can deliver mundane things like health care and cleaner cities are running ahead of the demagogues who aim to depose them by whipping up fear of outsiders.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the capital, Jakarta. Voters in seven provinces and 94 districts or cities -- together home to 45 million people -- went to the polls on Wednesday to choose the governors, district heads or mayors that shape their daily lives. But most eyes were focused on the battle for governor of Jakarta, where the Christian, ethnic Chinese Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (known as Ahok) defeated his challengers despite being dragged to the courts to defend himself against charges of blasphemy against Islam.

Although the results will not be official for several days, all 11 major QuickCount polls show Purnama winning around 43% of the vote, against 40% for former education minister Anies Baswedan, and 17% for Agus Yudhoyono, son of a former president.

Purnama typifies a new breed of politician, one that has been thrown up by the hyper-localized democracy that surfaced after President Suharto stepped down in 1998, ending over three decades of centralized, military-led rule. As leader of a small district on an island east of Sumatra, Purnama greatly increased access to health services and secondary education for the poorest, and was deemed a politician to watch by Indonesia's most influential magazine. From this platform he entered the national parliament, then became the running mate of Joko Widodo, another "new age" politician who aspired to become governor of Jakarta.

Widodo, a former furniture manufacturer, had been the popular mayor of a small city in central Java, despite having no real political backing. When he and Purnama stepped into the electoral ring in Jakarta in 2012 they were considered rank outsiders. But their record as effective administrators went down well with voters in the capital, and they won the vote handily.

Two years later, Widodo went on to run for president against the establishment candidate Prabowo Subianto, a former general who had been married to Suharto's daughter. Again, the outsider won. As a result, his deputy, Purnama, stepped up to the top job in Jakarta in 2014.

Rear-guard action

Somewhat belatedly, the Indonesian political establishment has begun to rally against these upstarts, who have no military backgrounds nor strong ties to the political parties or grand old families that have dominated the country since its independence from the Dutch in 1945.

The first rear-guard action was an attempt by parliament to get rid of direct elections for mayors and district heads, thus eliminating the fertile fields in which new age politicians thrive and come to public attention. When that failed, they went back to an older tactic: populist rabble-rousing.

Since the war of independence against the Dutch, Indonesian elites have goaded the country's large pool of young, under-employed men into gathering in mass actions for political purposes -- usually threatening opponents directly, although sometimes choosing proxy enemies simply to distract the public from unsavoury goings-on within the leadership.

"Mass organizations" change their uniforms and their battle cries over time -- in the 1970s and 1980s paramilitary garb was in fashion, whereas lately Arab turbans and robes have taken over, most notably as the uniform of the Islamic Defenders' Front, or FPI, a group originally financed by the police as a counterweight to the student demonstrators that brought down Suharto. According to an Indonesian intelligence officer whose 2006 conversation with U.S. diplomats appeared on Wikileaks, the country's chief of police "found it useful to have FPI available to him as an 'attack dog'." The group's members are commonly referred to as "Islamic hardliners" but their religious disguise dresses up a more profane function -- to hit the streets and do the political bidding of their paymasters.

And hit the streets they have, baying for the blood of the Christian Purnama, who had the audacity to tell voters in this Muslim-majority nation that they should not be misled by demagogues who quoted the Quran to prevent them from voting for a non-Muslim. FPI led a first mass demonstration after the Indonesian Ulema Council, or MUI, issued a fatwa demanding that Purnama be charged with insulting Islam. That fatwa came after a phone call to the leader from former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose son Agus was standing for governor and trailing frontrunner Purnama badly in the polls.

The elder Yudhoyono admits making the call to arrange for the leader of the powerful religious organization to receive his son during the campaign season, but denies mentioning the possibility of a fatwa. Purnama's lawyers, meanwhile continue to suggest in court that the former president influenced the MUI's diktat.

Abrasive style

Purnama was charged with blasphemy, but has carried on campaigning between court appearances. Though many find his personal style abrasive, voters seem to recognize that it has helped the governor cut through the corruption and sclerosis that has dogged the administration of this chaotic mega-city for decades.

Though there are clear parallels with the "drain the swamp" narrative that swept Donald Trump to power in the U.S., there is one crucial difference. Purnama, like Widodo, has a track record of actually delivering what people want, rather than simply promising it. This election has shown that Indonesians will not be seduced by populists urging tribalism as long as they can vote for a candidate, even a candidate unlike them, who has shown they can improve lives.

The old guard will not give up easily. In the best of all possible worlds, formerly entitled elites would turn their attention to delivering what the electorate demonstrably wants -- better schools and health care, cleaner, more functional cities, better infrastructure in remote areas. But it seems more likely that the elites will fall back on what they know best: exploiting networks of power-brokers, and rabble-rousing.

The Jakarta elections will now go to a second round, and citizens will brace themselves for more mass demonstrations, more disruption of the city's already chaotic transport systems and more divisive rhetoric. The implicit threat is this: If the people of Jakarta dare to choose a political outsider, the white-robed rabble will keep up the pressure even after the election. Those who want a quiet life would do better to choose Baswedan, who has shown a willingness to appease the FPI.

On Wednesday, the citizens of Jakarta stood up to that threat. Their message to the elites was that they will not be cowed by rent-a-mob politics. They also showed that the more radical Islamic voices do not yet command much real loyalty at the ballot box.

If level-headed voters hold their nerve in a second round, the old guard will gain little from continued support for the FPI and similar opportunists, who will probably go back to what scholars studying Indonesia's mass organizations describe as their bread-and-butter activity: running small-time protection rackets. That would be an important victory not just for Jakarta but for the nation, showing that the country's entrenched patronage networks cannot quash talented outsiders who deliver to citizens.

Elizabeth Pisani is an author, most recently of "Indonesia Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation."

Get Insights on Asia In Your Inbox

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

Get your first month for $0.99

Redeemable only through the Subscribe button below

Once subscribed, you can…

  • Read all stories with unlimited access (5 articles per month without subscription)
  • Use our smartphone and tablet apps

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

3 months for $9
SUBSCRIBE TODAY

Take advantage of this limited offer.
Subscribe now to get unlimited access to all articles.

To read the full story, Update your account

Resubscribe now to continue reading.
BEST OFFER:
Only US$ 9.99 per month for a full-year subscription

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

Once subscribed, you can…

  • Read all stories with unlimited access (5 articles per month without subscription)
  • Use our smartphone and tablet apps

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

3 months for $9
SUBSCRIBE TODAY

Take advantage of this limited offer.
Subscribe now to get unlimited access to all articles.

To read the full story, Update your account

We could not renew your subscription.
You need to update your payment information.