Jakarta’s Governor Drinks the Kool-Aid

Jakarta’s popular, graft-busting governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama will run for reelection on a party ticket after all, jettisoning an independent 2017 bid that had thrilled millions and rankled the political establishment.

The governor, popularly known as Ahok, cooled on his earlier commitment as it became clear an independent run would leave him overly exposed to political foes. He said he would be supported by Golkar, Hanura and the Nasdems. It’s a decision that was choreographed over a series of months, but which nonetheless threatens to leave thousands of supporters in the lurch.

“Politics is a nasty business here, so what do you expect him to do?” said Yosep, a middle-aged man who runs a copy shop in the Central Jakarta neighborhood of Menteng Dalam.

Despite the change of heart, the governor’s flirtation with an independent bid was, in many ways, an astonishing success. In March, a grassroots initiative known as “Teman Ahok” set out to collect the 532,000 signatures needed to qualify his independent run, positioning the governor as an alternative to a party system dogged by endemic corruption and patronage.

By mid-June, the group had hit 1 million signatures.

Putting pressure on the parties

The canvass was in large measure a pressure game meant to force parties to enlist a politician loathed for his maverick, take-no-prisoners leadership style. By that metric it was a success.

“Right now they (parties) don’t respond well to public opinion, so that’s why Teman Ahok [Friend Ahok] collected the support of the public,” said Titi Aggraini, executive director of Perludem, an election transparency organization. “Political parties saw that they cannot force their choice to nominate an unpopular candidate.”

But by breaking with the anti-party sentiment the movement nurtured, Ahok threatens to tarnish his brand as an alternative to elite insider politics. The challenge now becomes convincing his disappointed supporters that the move was more than a play for publicity.

Jeffery Winters, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, said it was remarkable that a double minority like Ahok could emerge as a vessel for popular dissatisfaction with insider politics, for which corruption and collusion are serial features.

“This is an ethnic-Chinese Christian who has managed the impossible – to win massive popular support in a Malay-Muslim majority country during a time when intolerance is on the rise,” Winters said. “This partly reflects Ahok's political skills, but it also reflects how unpopular the parties and their leaders have become.”

Killing the baby in his crib

By embracing Ahok, parties realized they could “kill the baby in its crib” while at the same time drafting off his celebrity to their benefit, explained Yohannes Sulaiman, a professor at Jendral Achmad Yani University in Jakarta and a former consultant at the coordinating ministry for political affairs.

Thus began months of courting, with Ahok gradually warming to the advances of Golkar, NasDem and Hanura -- his new party backers.

To the chagrin of many galvanized by the hope of an independent bid, Teman Ahok officially supports Ahok’s change of tack and welcomes the opportunity to work with political parties.

“Teman Ahok is not ‘anti-political party’, but we are disappointed when they do not hear the voice of the people,” the group wrote in a press release.

“So the purpose of Teman Ahok it to show the political parties that if the party does not hear us, then we can move on our own…providing an alternative vehicle for Ahok,”co-founder Amalia Ayuningtyas said in the release.

Winters agreed the move was pragmatic, saying that Ahok would have been “foolish to press forward without party backing.”

“He knows how treacherous it can be to get too many powerful actors aligned against him,” Winters explained, “and it is not inconceivable that the Elections Commission could suddenly use fishy reasons to claim the majority of Ahok's signatures were invalid.”

In recent weeks the Elections Commissions said it would allot just two weeks to verify the million-plus citizen signatures gathered by Teman Ahok, raising the political risk.

Prominent political blogger Dian Paramita said that when Ahok broke with Gerindra Party in 2014 over their support of a law that would have returned the election of governors from citizens to provincial legislatures, it proved he would never sacrifice his principles for the sake of party unity.

“From how big the support from the people was with Teman Ahok, we already made the parties understand they don’t have that power anymore, so it is safer for him to run with supporting political parties,” Paramita said.

Maybe closer to the machine?

Some analysts expressed puzzlement at popular perceptions of Ahok’s disavowal of patronage politics.

“I think he is a lot closer to these interests than a lot of people think,” said Ian Wilson, a professor at Murdoch University in Australia and an expert on Jakarta politics. “He has strategically deployed budget resources at his disposal in order to shore up political support and backing amongst key stakeholders, in particularly the military, who have subsequently been a key component of his evictions regime.

“This is despite there being no legal grounds for the military to be involved in what is, for the most part, the execution of city ordinances. So, it’s a kind of dispensing of favors, a transactional politics but within the legitimate bounds, even if these are pretty vague.”

That Ahok governs in such a fashion is practically a given, said Sulaiman. What separates the governor from other power brokers is to game the system not for personal benefit but the public good, “and to give political parties a swift kick in the butt.”

“Ahok knows that it is extremely difficult to change this kind of system, and you cannot have an angel doing it; you need to have a devil, but one you can trust,” Sulaiman said. “That’s Ahok.”