Commentary: Why Jakarta's voters turned away from Ahok

Commentary: Why Jakarta's voters turned away from Ahok

A candidate's religion and race are key factors in influencing voting patterns of Jakarta's residents, argues an expert on Indonesian politics.

A man walks towards a ballot box to cast his vote in the governor election in Jakarta
A man walks towards a ballot box to cast his vote in the governor election in Jakarta, Indonesia on Apr 19, 2017. (Photo: REUTERS/Beawiharta)

JAKARTA: Jakarta’s gubernatorial run-off on Wednesday (Apr 19) caught many in the country by surprise. According to a quick count released by several pollsters, the incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama - popularly known by his Chinese nickname Ahok - and his running mate Djarot Saiful Hidayat gained only about 43 per cent of the votes, while their challengers Anies Baswedan and Sandiaga Uno are likely to win with roughly 57 per cent.

While many had predicted that Ahok and Djarot might lose the election, almost no one expected that the gap would be this wide. What does this quick poll result mean for the people in Jakarta, Indonesian political elites and Indonesian society in general?


The first thing that we can learn from the Jakarta governor election quick poll result is that the ethno-religious background of a candidate is still an important factor influencing the voting patterns of a large segment within Jakarta society. About a year before, hardline Muslim groups in Jakarta launched an opposition movement against Ahok to prevent the Chinese Christian governor from winning this year’s election.

True, many other issues besides religion and ethnicity have been raised against Ahok. These include allegations of corruption and a backlash against his office’s eviction policies which only seemed to worsen the plight of the urban poor. Yet, none has triggered a massive movement against Ahok the way religion related issues has.

It is worth remembering that giant protests against Ahok only began after allegations of his blasphemous statement against Islam went viral. The messages and memes that labelled him a “blasphemer of religion” spread and gained significant traction on social media and other means of communication over the course of the two rounds of the election.

The image of Ahok as a non-Muslim Chinese Indonesian who insulted the religion of the Indonesian majority would appear to have made a significant impact on the decision by Jakarta voters.

Almost 60 per cent of Jakarta voters gave their votes to other pairs of candidates both during the first round in February as well as in Wednesday's run-off, although various surveys prior to the election show that 70 per cent of Jakarta residents were satisfied with the way Ahok had managed the city.

The fact that ethno-religious issues are a significant factor that influences voting behaviour in an Indonesian metropolitan city is worrisome, as it may inspire politicians in the future to use such issues as a political tool to rally the ground, notwithstanding their detrimental impact on the social cohesion of Indonesian society.

In this case, the resulting polarisation from the bitterly fought pre-election battle is not only dividing the city into Muslims and non-Muslims, but also hardline Muslims who paint Ahok as a “blasphemer of religion” on the one hand and the moderates who support him on the other.


The second interesting observation from Wednesday's election is that the last-minute support that Ahok and Djarot’s camp received from the PKB (National Awakening Party) and the PPP (Development United Party), two Islamic political parties that previously supported Agus Yudhoyono and Sylviana Murni, was clearly insufficient.

Both had declared support only a week or so before the run-off election. Several large events were organised by these two parties subsequently to encourage people to give their votes to Ahok and Djarot. Elites within GP Ansor, a youth organisation affiliated with Nahdlatul Ulama, the biggest Muslim organisation in Indonesia, also declared their support for Ahok and asked Muslim Jakarta residents not to give their votes to Anies and Sandi, who in their view were backed by and represented hardline Muslims.

Yet, this last-minute support was not enough. It did not successfully increase the votes for Ahok. One may blame this failure on the short remaining time, giving them little opportunity to rally their grassroots. But it may also suggest a declining influence of moderate Muslim political elites on the masses, at least in Jakarta. While this phenomenon may seem alarming and bears watching, one caveat is that Jakarta is not the main stronghold of PKB, PPP, GP Anshor or Nahdlatul Ulama.


Looking ahead, the result of Wednesday's election will have a significant impact on President Joko Widodo and the political parties that support him. Because Jakarta is the capital of Indonesia, Jokowi needs to have a good relationship with its governor and vice-governor to successfully implement his programmes. Being his former deputy, Ahok is the better person to fulfil such a role. And Djarot is affiliated with PDIP (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle), Jokowi’s political party. A win for them would have benefited Jokowi and PDIP. Jokowi and PDIP will also need the Jakarta governor’s support in the lead-up to the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections.

Indeed, Prabowo’s Gerindra Party and the PKS (Prosperous Justice Party) have emerged key winners in Anies’ likely victory. PKS will certainly try to capitalise on this opportunity to revive its dominion in the Jakarta parliament.

A week before the election, a PKS leader had declared that Anies would be able to help PKS obtain 30 seats in Jakarta’s parliament if elected. Many analysts also expect Prabowo to run for president again in the 2019 presidential elections. Anies’ victory may be a good stepping stone that strengthens Prabowo’s political position.

But it remains to be seen if Anies and Sandi will play to the wishes of these other political actors. In the aftermath, one thing is certain. Anies and Sandi have three main important tasks to accomplish once they take office - reconciling the city after a polarising hard-fought election fraught with religious and racial overtones, maintaining Jakarta residents’ satisfaction with the city’s government and actualising the social welfare programmes they promised to roll out during the campaign.

Dr Johanes Herlijanto is a visiting fellow at the Indonesia Study Programme at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

Source: CNA/sl