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Indonesia's political elites loom large in the battle for Jakarta

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6 October 2016 14:06

The last person to be elected governor of Jakarta ended up President of Indonesia after two years which helps explain why the country's elites have so much invested in next year's election.

The three pairs of candidates vying to be governor and deputy are all backed by prominent politicians and reflect the power play between President Joko Widodo, his rival retired general Prabowo Subianto, and former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The competition is as much about Jakarta’s old elites as the candidates themselves. Incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama - better known by his nickname Ahok - and his running mate are backed by the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P). Widodo ran on the PDI-P ticket to become Jakarta governor and president and there is interesting politics between him and the party's leader, former president Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Former education minister Anies Baswedan and businessman Sandiaga Uno are backed by a coalition of parties led by Subianto's Great Indonesia Movement (Gerindra). The third ticket, a surprise late addition, features Yudhoyono’s eldest son Agus Harimurti and running mate, veteran Jakarta bureaucrat Sylviana Murni. is backed by Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party.

Purnama has been governor of Indonesia's sprawling capital city – the beating heart of Southeast Asia's biggest economy – since 2014, when his predecessor, Widodo, moved on to the presidency. Before that, Widodo and Purnama played Jakarta's good cop and bad cop. Widodo took a more conciliatory approach to solving problems and left the tough talk to his deputy.

Purnama has honed his no-nonsense style over the last two years, upsetting some in the establishment but winning public support by showing his desire to improve life for the more than 10 million residents of Jakarata, a chaotic mega-city plagued by corruption, flooding and general bureaucratic incompetence.

He has improved public services. He has tried to enforce rules against waste dumping and illegal construction. And he has sacked some corrupt or underperforming officials.

Purnama's critics say he has pushed too far, attacking, for example, the vigour with which he demolishes slum settlements.

Some in the world's biggest Muslim majority nation have also taken aim at his religious and ethnic background: Purnama is an ethnic Chinese and a Christian.

But playing the race and religion card did not work in 2012, when Purnama won with Widodo and polling suggests it won't resonate this time either.

His two rivals are trying to highlight their very real differences from the incumbent.

Baswedan, the former education minister, is polite, officious and calm. He has been playing up his image as a 'good Muslim'. His running mate, Uno, is a private equity investor whose entry into politics has been somewhat gaffe-prone. The youthful-looking millionaire, who advised Subianto on economic policy during the 2014 presidential election, was forced into a clumsy apology early on in the campaign after photos of him wearing an unflattering tight tracksuit went viral.

Meanwhile Yudhoyono, who has been trying to carve out a role as a senior statesman since stepping down from the presidency in 2014, has put forward his eldest son Agus for the job. The 38-year-old up-and-coming army officer has the pedigree of an elite family, but he is no politician yet. Critics question whether his military links and good looks will be enough to win voters however supporters believe he will impress more than his higher profile younger brother, Edhie Baskoro, who has stepped down from his role as secretary-general of the Democrat Party.

For Subianto, Sukarnoputri and Yudhoyono, the Jakarta governorship is about much more than who gets to clean up the city's polluted rivers and manage the trash collection.

All three see it as a proxy battle for political influence, ahead of the next presidential election in 2019.

Where does that leave Purnama? He was sworn in as deputy Jakarta governor under Gerindra, but fell out and left the party. Sukarnoputri threw her support behind him just days before the registration deadline. But she could be in for a disappointment. Just like Widodo, also a PDI-P member, Purnama doesn’t want to be anyone else’s man.

The contest illustrates that Indonesia's democracy is, to a large extent, a fight between emerging leaders with strong public support such as Widodo and Purnama and old war horses trying to maintain their influence.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Yasunari Goto

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