Indonesia's capital Jakarta votes for next governor
JAKARTA, Indonesia (UPDATED) – On Wednesday, February 15, Jakartans head to polling centers to elect their next governor.
It will be a test of Indonesia’s religious intolerance, a battle of emotions versus rationality, and one that is predicted to be an extremely close race in what has been a rollercoaster campaign season.
Jakarta’s Christian and ethnic Chinese governor, Basuki Tjahaha Purnama, better known as Ahok, is hoping to keep his position despite tough obstacles. Ahok was President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s vice-governor when the latter was governor of Indonesia’s capital, but took over after Jokowi was elected to the nation’s highest post.
Ahok is running against Agus Yudhoyono, the son of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The third contender, ex-education minister Anies Baswedan, is backed by former general Prabowo Subianto, who heads a powerful political party – and ran but lost against Jokowi in 2014.
About 100 other local elections are taking place on Wednesday but the stakes are highest in the capital, a megacity of 10 million people, with the top job in Jakarta seen as a stepping stone to victory in the 2019 presidential polls.
Polls opened at 7 am local time (0000 GMT) and are due to close at 1 pm (0600 GMT).
An early vote tally released in the afternoon should give an indication of how the candidates have performed although official results will not be announced until mid-March, and the vote is likely to go to an April run-off.
What have been the highlights of the campaign season and what should we expect? Here’s a list of 5 things you need to know about the elections, in a campaign period that has taken the capital by storm:
1. Ahok’s blasphemy case
The election season largely centered around Ahok’s blasphemy case. The run-up to the polls has been overshadowed by anger at claims Ahok insulted the Koran, which sparked huge protests by Islamic hardliners and led to the governor being put on trial in a case criticized as unfair and politically motivated.
“Religion will continue to be used as a political tool in this country. No one in this room is naive enough to believe it is pure religion, political has no hand in it,” Yenny Wahid, Director of The Wahid Institute, an Islam research center based in Jakarta, told foreign journalists last week.
Yahya Cholil Staquf, Secretary General of Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization, agrees.
“It is obvious that what happened in (the protests) were politically motivated, arranged and orchestrated. Many different groups were involved in these rallies, including people who are usually seen to be moderate,” he said.
Ahok's troubles began in September when he said in a speech that his rivals were tricking people into voting against him using a Koranic verse, which some interpret as meaning Muslims should only choose Muslim leaders.
An edited video of his comments went viral online, sparking widespread public anger. (READ: Indonesia faces test of religious tolerance as Jakarta's governor faces blasphemy trial)
The controversy is a high-profile example of the religious intolerance that has become more common in Indonesia in recent years, with a surge of attacks on minorities as hardliners battle for influence.
About 90% of Indonesia's 255 million inhabitants are Muslim but most practice a moderate form of Islam and have lived largely harmoniously alongside Christian, Buddhist and Hindu minorities.
Ahok has not been barred from running but his lead in opinion polls has shrunk, and the vote is now seen as a test of whether much vaunted pluralism and a tolerant brand of Islam in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country are being eroded. His trial is not expected to finish until at least April.
2. Platforms: Emotions versus rationality
The trial against Ahok has been used by his opponents to their advantage. Agus and Anies on Saturday, February 11, on the last day of the campaign, were seen at a politically-charged prayer rally which attracted thousands of conservative Muslims who previously denounced Ahok.
“The other two (Anies and Agus) have been running basically a very minimal policy platform and a highly emotive campaign about voting out Ahok. In fact, they teamed up together in the prayer, and they were both there together praying. Ultimately that is going to hurt one of them if it goes to second round,” Ross Tapsell, a lecturer in Asian Studies at the School of Culture, History and Language at the Australian National University, told Rappler.
This is a stark contrast from the campaign Ahok has ran, which appeals more to the rational voter.
“The MRTs being built, the parklands being constructed, changing a prostitute area to a park, trying to tackle corruption... All of these things appeal to Jakartans and are not broader issues or emotive issues. It’s about the rational voter, and they believe that that will win them the election because they feel that when it comes down to it, it’s concrete policy and positions and actions that will sway voters. That’s basically the heart of their campaign,” Tapsell said.
Ahok gained popularity as governor after transforming parts of Jakarta, although he has sparked some opposition with controversial slum clearances.
3. Roller coaster surveys
Ahok was originally leading in surveys in the beginning of the elections, but his support slipped after the blasphemy controversy erupted. He has since bounced back, with most recent polls showing him in the lead. If the vote goes to a run-off in April howeverm he is seen as likely to lose.
In these elections, unless a candidate wins majority of the votes, a second race between the two top contenders will declare the winner.
“If you didn’t vote for Ahok in the first round and went with that emotional decision, that Ahok is a bad representative for a Muslim nation, then why would you vote for him in second round?,” Tapsell said.
In September, Poltracking Indonesia showed that Ahok enjoyed 40.7% support going into the campaign period. But by November, after the blasphemy controversy erupted, Ahok dropped to 22%. At that point, Agus was the leading candidate with 27.29% electability, and Anies at the bottom with 20.42%.
But Anies played his cards well, appealing to the Muslim conservatives. By January 1st, Anies was at 28.63%, Ahok at 28.88%, and Agus at 30.25%. Poltracking’s final numbers on January 27, after the first official debate, showed Anies leading at 31.5%, Ahok at 30.13% and Agus at just 25.75% due to his poor debate performance.
“Agus was leading months ago, and a lot of the early demonstrations were encouraged by the Agus-Sylvi campaign. What happened in December and January was that Anies, who is the lowest, started to schmooze with Islamic leaders, including FPI (Islamic Defenders Front), which meant that he started to secure a base of conservative Islamic voters,” Tapsell said.
“Prior to that, his campaign had run on entrepreneurship and education. It had failed in the sense that he was losing in the polls, and they realized this was going to be an election run around emotions, not policy details.”
FPI was the organization that initiated protests against Ahok. Anies was soon framed by his campaign team as the conservative Muslim leader that the religious conservatives to vote for, a foil to Ahok – a smart move that turned Anies’ campaign around.
As for Agus, while he led in the beginning due largely to his appeal and good looks rather than his platforms, his electability dropped after the debates.
“It was always a shallow appeal, and there was never a lot of substance to voters voting for him. What we saw was that the debates occurred, and this was seemingly the decline of the Agus-Sylvi campaign. He didn’t debate well, Sylvi didn’t speak much, he showed that he looked underprepared and not ready to lead Jakarta,” said Tapsell.
“He’s a 37-year-old guy who was pulled out really quickly from the military by his father to run this campaign and it was proven to be a false move after the debates.”
4. Social media’s major role
Social media, as expected, has played a huge factor around these elections. All 3 candidates understood the need for a campaign with social media strategy, especially after social media’s impact in the 2014 presidential elections that brought Jokowi to power.
Religious and ethnic tensions have made for a dirty race with fake news flooding social media. The misinformation campaign mainly targeted Ahok, and included claims that a free vaccination program he backed was a bid to make girls infertile and reduce the population. His supporters have hit back online, defending his record in office.
“Everyone has a different strategy, Anies has been largely based on Facebook, in similar ways to Trump. Agus has tried a multi-platform approach and pushing a lot on Twitter, which I think has ultimately failed as Twitter is dying, obviously they thought it was still relevant given how popular it was in 2012 (during the last gubernatorial elections),” Tapsell said.
“Ahok has volunteers that are doing their thing, but their role is reduced once the protests and prayers start on the street. I think it has been very crucial in decimating a lot of anti-Chinese messages.”
5. Too close to call
What analysts can all agree on is that the race is too close to call. With fluctuating surveys and various controversies, will Jakartans ultimately vote based on emotions or facts?
Tobias Basuki, a political analyst from Jakarta think-tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the elections “is going to be a litmus test of Indonesian Islam – are we tolerant or intolerant?"
Tapsell goes one step further to say he thinks emotions may win out.
“My broader theory is that elections are all now based on emotions rather than facts. Look at Trump, look at Brexit. So if Ahok does lose, it’ll be a continuation of the trend of this post-truth politics idea where people don’t trust the mainstream media and they don’t trust government with information,” he said.
However, Tapsell said that an Ahok victory is not impossible and would prove several important things including the failing dependability of polls – as seen in US President Donald Trump’s victory, despite polls saying otherwise – and it would show that the rational voter prevails.
“It would also be a bigger victory in an Indonesian election context than if Jokowi won in 2014. In Ahok’s case, it’s harder because it’s not just about Jokowi not being in the elite circles, this guy is a Chinese Christian. So if Jakartans overturn that narrative, it would be highly inspiring and extraordinary.”
Tapsell said he does not think Ahok will win despite social sentiment leaning towards him, and believes Anies will ultimately become governor. But Tapsell admits that even Agus “might be able to turn it around by campaigning through grassroots.”
“I’m sticking with the idea that it will go to a second round and Ahok will be in that second round,” he said.
But then again, most analysts agree that a second round means a loss for Ahok. – with reports from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com
We keep you informed because you matter
We tell you the stories that matter. We ask, we probe, we explain.
But as we strive to do all this and speak truth to power, we face constant threats to our independence.
Help us make a difference through free and fearless journalism. With your help, you enable us to keep providing you with our brand of compelling and investigative work.
Joining Rappler PLUS allows us to build communities of action with you. PLUS members will receive our editorial newsletters and industry reports, get to join exclusive online conversations with our award-winning journalists, and be part of our monthly events.
Make your move now. Join Rappler PLUS.