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Jokowi’s stake in Jakarta’s gubernatorial race

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Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama poses beside Indonesia's President Joko Widodo after his swearing-in at the Presidential palace in Jakarta, 19 November 2014. (Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta).

In Brief

The last time Jakartans elected a governor, they upended national politics by giving Joko Widodo (Jokowi), then an obscure regional mayor, a launching pad for his successful tilt at the presidency. The result of Wednesday’s gubernatorial election could well be as consequential.


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The five-yearly fight for the Jakarta governorship is cementing itself as battlefield for proxies of national level interests, as well as an audition for higher office.

Preliminary tallies show that the incumbent, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (or Ahok), has won 43 per cent of the vote, followed closely by former academic and education minister Anies Baswedan on 40 per cent. Knocked out after gaining just 17 per cent is the son of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), Agus Harimurti, who gave up a military career to make what now looks to have been a premature entry into politics. With no candidate receiving more than 50 per cent of the vote, Ahok and Anies will compete in a runoff election in April.

Ahok can be pleased with his result in the first round given the huge headwinds he has faced. This is his first time seeking a personal electoral mandate in Jakarta: he was Jokowi’s deputy governor and got his current job after Jokowi was elected president. Even his adversaries will admit that he has had real policy wins in a city that is notoriously difficult to govern. But his abrasive personality alienates elites and voters alike, and as a ‘double minority’ — ethnic Chinese and Christian — he is subject to both racial and religious targeting.

Indeed, the breadth and intensity of religiously-charged opposition to his candidacy has been staggering. After Ahok made ill-judged comments about the Qur’an, Islamists held mass protests — bankrolled by the governor’s political opponents — demanding that he be tried for blasphemy. Two mass rallies in Jakarta in November and December drew hundreds of thousands of protestors onto the streets, seriously rattling Jokowi and his inner circle, who correctly perceived that the president was as much a target as Ahok.

An Ahok victory was and is Jokowi’s ideal scenario. It would prevent political adversaries from capturing Jakarta, as well as keep the PDI-P party — to whom both the president and Ahok are allied — as a powerful force in the capital. But in the febrile political environment that followed the mass rallies, Jokowi’s police and prosecutors caved to public sentiment and gave the radicals what they wanted. Ahok now faces possible dismissal from office and prison in a blasphemy trial currently underway.

The person who can be most gratified with Wednesday’s results is Anies Baswedan. His strong showing — an impressive comeback after being sacked from Jokowi’s cabinet in 2016 — marks him as a politician to watch. His candidacy was backed by the Gerindra party headed by ex-general Prabowo Subianto, whom Jokowi defeated in a bruising presidential election in 2014. Anies’ policy wonk image among middle class voters, together with some craven appeals to conservative Islam, have proved an effective combination in Jakarta. If he wins the April runoff, he will try to use the governorship as a stepping stone to higher office, possibly as Prabowo’s running mate in 2019.

Anies’ — and corollary to that, Prabowo’s — electoral fillip has come at the expense of the third placed candidate, Agus Yudhoyono, and his father. Weighed down by controversy over SBY’s alleged role in the huge anti-Ahok rallies, Agus never emerged from his family’s shadow. With his parents determined to create a dynasty, Agus will likely seek other opportunities to enter national politics in the coming years.

Two things will decide whether Ahok will win the upcoming runoff. First, whether he can gain the support of enough of Agus’ voters, or whether Agus’ base represents an anti-Ahok vote that will shift in bulk to Anies. Second, whether the governor can buck history and desist from making further gaffes that aggravate religious sensibilities.

What is not in question is that with so much at stake, and passions having already been inflamed, ethno-religious campaigns will continue to pervade at the grassroots with the aid of political parties and religious organisations opposing Ahok. Certainly, these so-called ‘black campaigns’ have failed before and may fail again. But there is evidence that for a substantial number of voters, ethnic and religious differences do drive them away from minority candidates like Ahok. Indeed, as a top pollster put it, ‘the only way [to beat] Ahok is to use religious sentiment because 75 per cent of Jakartans perceive [he] has done a good job’.

With that in mind, a loss for Ahok in spite of his mostly satisfactory policy performance would speak volumes about the relative importance of competent leadership versus identity politics in winning voters’ hearts in Indonesia. More broadly, the confusion and weakness displayed by moderate politicians and Islamic leaders in the face of demands for Ahok’s prosecution was a worrying illustration of how radicals are increasingly being allowed to set the agenda on religion’s role in public life.

Make no mistake: once again, the Jakarta election is far bigger than the faces that appear on the ballot paper.

Liam Gammon is a PhD researcher at the Department of Political and Social Change at the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, and is a member of the East Asia Forum editorial team.

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