Discussing Jakarta's Gubernatorial Election with Seth Soderborg

Discussing Jakarta's Gubernatorial Election with Seth Soderborg

This Wednesday, April 19th, polls will open in the second round of the contested gubernatorial election in Jakarta, Indonesia. Jakarta voters will choose either the incumbent, Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as “Ahok”, or his challenger, former Indonesian Minister of Education and Culture Anies Baswedan. To contextualize this election and its implications for Indonesia, the Fletcher Forum sat down with Seth Soderborg, a political science PhD student at Harvard studying Indonesian politics, to discuss Indonesia's political landscape, the election, and his research on Indonesia’s local administrative state.
This is the first part of a two-part interview.

Fletcher Forum: What is the current political landscape in Indonesia?

Seth Soderborg: The big themes in Indonesian politics right now are arrests, corruption, and religious extremism. All of these threads are relevant to the gubernatorial candidate [and current governor of Jakarta] Ahok’s image. This week, there was an acid attack on the lead investigator of Indonesia's anti-corruption commission, Novel Baswedan. He had been conducting an investigation into the Speaker of the House as well as other politicians. He is also the cousin of Anies Baswedan [the challenger in the Jakarta gubernatorial race].
Another major story has been that a hardline Islamist who was loosely connected with the 411 and 212 protests was arrested on treason charges. [Editor’s Note: Anti-Ahok protests occurred in Jakarta on 4 November and 2 December, 2016.] The claim by the police, which it's not clear if it is a credible claim, stated they were planning some sort of attack on the Indonesian Parliament (DPR) in Jakarta. This story is interesting in the context of the Jakarta Gubernatorial race as several people affiliated with the protests have at been arrested since December and have all since been released. Observers have noted it’s possible that these individuals, who were brought up on treason charges, could meet the same standard of evidence that is being used in the pending blasphemy or hate speech case against Ahok.

Governor Ahok is well known in Indonesia because he was now-President Jokowi’s Vice Governor [when Jokowi was governor of Jakarta]. This has connected him with the immensely popular Jokowi. The latest polls show President Jokowi at 57% of the voter’s support and his closest competitor, Prabowo, at 23%.

The other thing, in the general context, are that the balance of national legislative power lies with the PDI-P [Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle] and Golkar. Gerindra and the Democratic Party are the next major parties in Indonesia’s Parliament. Gerindra and PDI-P were the parties closest to Ahok when he became governor; the PDI-P is now his most important support.
For the gubernatorial election, Jakarta is a PDI-P town. Gerindra is second. Those parties are sufficient to run to Jakarta as long as you can pick off one of the others. Indonesian governors, especially the head of the special district of Jakarta, have a lot of power. Although there is the Jakarta City legislature, a lot can be done by executive fiat, which Ahok has used to carry out his policies over the past two and half years.

In the election, the issue that has gotten the most attention and extra importance in the international and domestic press is the issue of religion and pluralism.
Ahok is an unusual figure. He is the highest-ranking ethnically Chinese Indonesian elected official in Indonesia. He is doubly “other” compared with the Indonesian majority as he is both Christian and ethnically Chinese. This means that some view the election as a referendum on Indonesia's religious and ethnic pluralism. That is the main issue in every account of the election in English.

However, there are policies that are also substantively being debated in this election, particularly about social spending. Ahok has expanded Jokowi’s initiatives and created his own to improve access to public services. He has also focused on providing housing, which has been closely connected with flood mitigation projects. These projects have displaced a lot of people and the resettlement of these people has been contentious.

The other big issue has been the North Jakarta land reclamation project. There is a huge planned expansion of the city of Jakarta, and it has been in the works for decades. One interpretation of the project is that it is a giant giveaway to real estate developers, who are very powerful in Jakarta politics. Another is that this project is a necessary aspect of city expansion, and it will help open space for subsidized housing that Ahok wants to build. The two other fights within the reclamation project concern whether the project will actually counteract the flood mitigation plans and if the plan is technically sound. There have also been some corruption claims concerning different parts of that project - as with almost every large-scale project in Indonesia. Despite attempts to connect him with one potential scandal, these claims have not really affected Ahok.

FF: Zooming out a little, there has been a lot of domestic and international press coverage on this election. Why do you think that is the case?

SS: The religious element combined with the idea that this is a referendum make it a captivating story. It fits into this common, long-standing narrative about Indonesia in the international press. Will Indonesia fall? In what way will it fall apart? Will it be regionalism? Will it be the ongoing struggle between secularism and the anti-secularist stream of Islam? Will it be something else? In some ways, it's a version of the story that has been written many times. However, it is also true that this religious story has captivated the country. There are other local elections happening, but the demonstrations in Jakarta were the biggest story in November, December, and January.

Some observers think that this election is just a referendum on Ahok as a person who is Christian and ethnically Chinese. However, if you watch the debates and hear what is being discussed at many of the campaign stops, the conversation focuses on specific policies that Ahok is pursuing. It is true that Ahok has put out this campaign ad saying, “I am diverse” and “We should support pluralism”. Pluralism is really the political strain that Ahok comes from. He used to be a member of Gerindra [Editor’s Note: Gerindra is an Indonesian nationalist party]. He is now “nonpartisan”, similar to many well-known reformist executive politicians in Indonesia. Like many of them, he has tried to distance himself from parties because there is a widespread sense that partisanship is corrupt. If we look at the political tradition that he comes from in Indonesia, Gerindra more broadly is not actually a party of Islamists, but a party of nationalists. Indonesian nationalism is partly about making Indonesia great for the first time, but it is also about ensuring that Indonesia is a secular and pluralist polity. PDI-P is about that. Gerindra is also about that, despite the fact that Prabowo courted the [more partisan/Islamic Fundamentalist] FPI in his presidential election campaign in 2014.
There is a really important way that Ahok fits into this permanent cleavage in Indonesian politics. If you want to discuss the pluralism/nationalism versus Islamism debate, you can follow that debate all the way back to 1945 [when Indonesia’s first constitution was written].
Some of the foreign press have called it a rising tide of intolerance, but I don't see that happening here. I think it is the same old story happening in Indonesia - Islamists are and have been a potent political force.
The Jakarta gubernatorial election is the second most important election in the country after the Presidential election. Jakarta is the commercial, political, and cultural center of the country. The election decides the daily lives of the elite, of most of the expats, and of the thirty million people who live in greater Jakarta. A quarter of the country's GDP comes from greater Jakarta. It is more important than the West or East Java gubernatorial election, even though 30 million people live in those provinces. The last governor of Jakarta became the President.
FF: The 212 and the 411 movements have entered the American press recently because of a Marvel Comic Book where they were included by an Indonesian comic book artist. What are these movements? What exactly do you see them as?

SS: The protestors call these demonstrations “actions” and I think that is a really good word for them. Some have started calling them movements, but they are more one-off demonstrations and focus mostly on making a statement. They are trying to make a statement that Ahok is an illegitimate governor because non-Muslims should not rule over Muslims.

The court case [against Ahok] is an important pretext for this. There are many groups composing these actions, and FPI is the most important group among them. Although they have an office in Jakarta, FPI matters much more in Central Java. Jakartans are not really FPI supporters.

They are a brilliant organization as far as publicity is concerned. They have figured out how do things that will generate interest among certain segments of the population as well as fear among the cosmopolitan Indonesian elite. To the cosmopolitan elite group, the FPI and its ilk are backwards and hateful, making themselves appear larger than they are.
Another reason which I suspect explains why they have more appeal than we might think is that the FPI are not terrorists. FPI is not like Jemaah Islamiyah. FPI has been involved in violent mob actions, especially around Yogyakarta, but they have not committed terrorists acts. There is a worldview in which envisioning and advocating for Indonesia as a Muslim state is part of your understanding of Indonesian nationalism, not a terrorist project.
The issue about Ahok’s religion and ethnicity is not something new. It started on the first day that he became governor. FPI has been the organization driving the idea that a Christian should not rule over Muslims, and that has been the line of the FPI since the first day of Ahok’s term. The FPI is quite a hateful organization; that has not been the message of Anies’s campaign. He has focused on issues like land reclamation and has distanced himself from the FPI.

FF: The FPI is small group compared with Indonesia’s larger national Islamic organizations such as Nadhlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, but it seems that FPI is trying to take on a more prominent role. What do you see as the generational demographic breakdown of these actions?

SS: I’m not sure that any sociologists went down to the 212 action and tried to figure out the age of participants. Their media mastery is not limited to television, but also includes social media. They have a big YouTube channel. There is also a lot of ridicule of them online. They have a big social media presence.
It's definitely not the case that only older people express FPI’s views. Lots of religious students are young. Generally, any sort of religious fanatic is likely to be younger than the average age of the general population. People who are involved with violent extremist groups and are involved in religious life are often young.
You can't be in both the NU and the FPI. The NU puts as the slogan of its youth wing, “Defenders of pluralism,” which conflicts with the FPI world view. Who does the NU see itself defending pluralism against? The FPI.

When you look at Islamists in Indonesian politics, such as the PKS [an Islamist political party], they are young. The FPI and PKS are not the same thing. There is an important youth story for both groups. It would be unwise to conclude that young people are not interested in the FPI. I think that it would be dangerous to dismiss that possibility.

FF: How do you think the spread of fake news around Indonesia via Facebook has affected the Jakarta election?

SS: I have not followed any stories about that in this election. It mattered in 2014. Since then, “hoax” has become a word in Bahasa Indonesia. I have seen many stories saying claiming something is a hoax. There is an awareness that false stories are being spread and have to be countered.

It's definitely true in big Indonesian elections that the spreading of falsehoods via social media has been a deliberate strategy. The best example of that was the well put-together rumor mill that advanced the claim that Jokowi was a secret Christian. They claimed he had a secret Christian middle name. The story received a lot of traction. Jokowi ended up flying to Mecca the weekend before the election to reaffirm his religion publicly.

The way it was being spread was interesting. Facebook was not quite as popular in 2014. Path was very popular and this story was circulating on Path, via WhatsApp groups, and text message chains. I think that it was circulated on Twitter, but Twitter is mainly used in Jakarta. The message was spread in ways that ensured lots of people would get the messages. I think that we were all more credulous in 2014.

FF: What were your reactions to the first round results?

SS: I have to give some credit to Indonesian television. The debates really focused on social issues and were quite well-executed. The candidates, except for Agus Yudhoyono, did a good job talking about issues. Ahok and Anies did not litigate the demonstrations at the debate. Anies chose to not focus on the issue, and it's not clear that he comes off better by voicing his support for the demonstrations. He does refer to Ahok’s divisiveness. The FPI is a big deal, but it's a liability.

I think that Prabowo [during his candidacy for president in 2014] miscalculated when he embraced FPI, and in doing so confirmed that he was a scary guy. A lot of his campaign was based around claiming he was not a scary guy. I don’t think vocalizing support for FPI is a winning strategy in a Jakarta election. That only works if you are running for provincial assembly in Central Java, where they have enough votes to win a few seats.

FF: As far the first round, you asked, why do I think Agus Yudhoyono won the fewest votes?

SS: Agus is a lightweight. It’s clear the only reason he is able to be at the top of the ticket was because his dad is the former President. He is clearly trading on his good looks and his father's prominence. There is no way he has paid his dues. I think a lot of voters recognize that he is this privileged person. When it came to the debates, he did badly, was inarticulate, and was subsequently ridiculed for things he said.
I don't think it is at all clear who his base was. Ahok's base is a little bit easier to figure out because it is more familiar. But who is going to vote for Agus Yudhoyono? Especially when he is running for this important job against two capable politicians. He should not be sharing the stage with them, and it is not surprising that he crashed.

FF: Does have any political future?

SS: He might. Politicians in Indonesia don't seem to go away. Setya Novanto remains the Speaker of the House even though the Freeport Tape scandal was more than a year ago.

But I heard that Agus Yudhoyono’s brother might run in the West Java gubernatorial election. [Bandung Mayor Ridwan Kamil has confirmed that he is also going to run in that race] or possibly be the President’s running mate in 2019 and then run for President in 2024. It is kind of interesting that there are not so many plausible presidential contenders, but I think that it is because Jokowi is so popular.

FF: How do you see the next round of the election turning out?

SS: It is interesting how close the two candidates are. I think no one can credibly make a strong prediction.

Two polls that have received some attention. One that showed a six point lead for Anies, but that poll came from an unknown polling company. The other was from SMRC. SMRC polls are good, and I have had long talks with them about how they sample. I may be biased my opinion, but they are really careful and they have a great track record. Their survey showed Anies with a 1% lead in a poll with about a 4% margin of error. That is a tie.

The story in Jakarta is that Ahok won the debate. There was a quick poll from Indikator that 67% of people who watched the debate felt that Ahok had won. They are both uptrending. The best way of reading it is that the Agus voters are sliding into one or the other. I think I saw 5% stated as undecided. It makes me wonder if Anies supporters were either not responding or said that they were undecided.

As a result of the FPI business there might be a tendency for people to not to report their support for Anies. This was claimed to be a serious problem in the U.S. election. In the U.S. election, the polls were damn accurate and got the popular vote right. Polls have gotten bad rap, they are actually extremely accurate.

FF: It should be exciting. Will we see the quick-count result this week?
SS: Yes, they should be counted by Wednesday night, Jakarta time. It is not hard to do a good quick count as you are estimating the results based off of the real results. The trick in the quick count is that you make sure that you have all polling stations in practice. I think SMRC quick count involved 10,000. You're fine. Talking about 2% of the population of voters. That is a big sample size.
In a city like Jakarta with a lot scrutiny and a very well administered election system, it is a lot harder for elections commissioners at the local level to do weird things. That happens in the local legislative elections with party lists as commissioner may move votes around the lists. That sort of thing that would be relevant if you are thinking about other parts of the country, but it will not matter here.
Indonesia has a better system for administrating its elections than the U.S. The government's goal in elections is to ensure that everyone votes, which is different than the goal of many local governments in the United States.
So far, good bit of news to keep in mind regardless of the results. First, it is going to be a peaceful election. It's not like in 2014 when people were pretty nervous about the elections and the results. Democracy is here and I think a lot of people are invested in Ahok as governor. This is a referendum on him.
But I do think that if Anies wins, it does not mean that the FPI won and that religious pluralism is over and religious intolerance is the path to power. Anies is not a candidate of hate. Anies will probably be a decent governor and there are good reasons to vote against Ahok. There are things about Anies that could lead a reasonable person to vote for him. I think the religious angle has obscured this fact that Anies is fine.

This is very different from the 2014 election. Some people treated the 2014 election as a referendum on democracy. There are ways in which it was overblown and ways that it wasn't overblown.

The idea that if Prabowo won the election, Indonesia would immediately revert to the old New Order government was way overblown. There were some covering the election in English who were making that argument. He might have been like an Erdogan eventually, but that process takes a lot of time. You could not have known that in 2014.
However, it was true that the position of the Golkar and possibly Gerindra was the idea that local elections should not happen. Golkar and Gerindra led an effort to alter local elections after the elections, and Democratic Party abstained because SBY thought it was clever. A member of parliament from the Golkar party, Fayakhun Andriadi, has argued that Golkar must transform. In his book, he talks about what Golkar stands for, and the interesting thing is that Golkar stands for what the people want with no particular ideology. One particular item that comes in book is the corrosive effect local elections and that those local elections should be curtailed.

That was really the way that the 2014 election was a referendum on decentralized democracy. This election is not that election. It is important, but it is not important in many of the ways that has been portrayed as being important.

FF: Thank you, that is a good way to end our first conversation.

Image credit Margaret Mariani.

Seth Soderborg

Seth Soderborg is a Political Science PhD student at Harvard. His studies focus on Indonesian politics.  

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