Elections in the capital cities of Asia are often seen as bellwethers for national elections, and elections in Jakarta, Indonesia, are no exception. Still, there is reason to consider the 2017 gubernatorial elections in Jakarta as deserving of particular attention. For one, the incumbent candidate, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, was a highly popular governor who took over the mantle from a highly popular predecessor, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, when the latter won the presidential elections in 2014. Both men are considered to break political traditions, so that their respective popularities underpinned hope for wide support of political change. The electoral defeat of Ahok, then, by former education minister, Anies Baswedan, may have dimmed those hopes. In the following, I discuss how this gubernatorial election may foreshadow politics and the 2019 presidential elections in Indonesia.
It is notable that Ahok and Anies are each backed by political opponents at the national level. Ahok is supported by the Indonesia Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), of which President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is a member and former President Megawati Sukarnoputri is chair. Anies was previously a supporter of President Jokowi, and served as his education minister between 2014-2016; however, in the 2017 contest, he drew support from the legislative opposition, namely the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), whose chair, Prabowo Subianto, was defeated in the 2014 presidential elections, and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), an Islamic party. Many will remember the 2014 presidential elections as a hard-fought contest, with Prabowo initially refusing to concede on the quickcount results, and subsequently coalescing the Red-White majority opposition coalition to stymie the agenda of the elected President. Several of the parties in that opposition coalition has since jumped ship join the President’s Awesome Indonesia Coalition; as of May 2016, only Gerindra and PKS remains in the coalition. Political parties are already readying up for the 2019 elections – Golkar has announced its support for the President Jokowi – and there is no mistaking Prabowo’s interest in that election. Anies’ successful election as governor may help Prabowo’s plans, and it is not a stretch for Prabowo to run with a similar strategy, i.e., divide the popular vote over religion. Anies himself sought the support of Islamist groups, including militant groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), known for hard-line stances and attacks against minorities.
The religious cleavage was thrown open in this election: the aggressive effort to charge Ahok with blasphemy against Islam, together with regular reminders of the potential for unrest in a series of protests and rallies against the Chinese Christian governor, led to the significant erosion of Ahok’s huge polling lead. The long and slow trial ended only following the election, with prosecutors dropping the blasphemy charges against Ahok for a lesser charge that carries a possible two-year probation. The damage to Ahok is eclipsed only by the damage to Indonesian politics: home to the world’s largest Muslim population, the election may have witnessed Indonesia’s democratic trajectory sidelined by aggressive hardline tactics used to unseat a popular, successful, non-Islam governor. That does not bode well for the 2019 elections.