Retired military generals are no strangers to local politics, especially in Jakarta. Governors of the country’s capital had always had a military background until Fauzi Bowo, a career bureaucrat, won Jakarta’s first gubernatorial election in 2007.
A military background, says University of Indonesia political analyst Ibramsyah, has always been seen as a necessary quality for governing a city like Jakarta that is rife with organized crime.
“Jakarta is a home to all kinds of gangs from all over Indonesia,” he says.
“Foke has proven to be powerless in facing these groups, so we do need a stern, military approach,” he adds, referring to the incumbent by his nickname.
Hendardji Soepandji, a former two-star general, seemed to have taken this factor into account when he declared his candidacy in March.
Combining his military experience with growing apathy toward political parties, Hendardji paired up with young businessman and politician Ahmad Riza Patria to take the independent route to City Hall.
“I chose to run as an independent because I don’t want [parties] to interfere with me,” he tells the Jakarta Globe.
“I’ve been independent since birth; my mother gave birth to me without any help from midwives or doctors.”
He adds that solving many of the capital’s problems boils down to a question of strong leadership.
“Only a good leader with a strong character can significantly improve social conditions in the capital,” Hendardji says.
“Social programs to date have either ended in failure or gone against one another. This is clear evidence of the absence of good leadership.”
During the 1998 riots that gripped the capital, Hendardji was the military police commander at the Jakarta Military Command. He points to this as evidence that he can manage Jakarta.
“I was actively involved in securing the capital at that time. I often found myself in the middle of rival groups and I had to prevent casualties,” he says.
Ibramsyah says a military background is also useful in getting a large group of people to work together.
“A governor needs to excel in coordination. Look at past governors like Ali Sadikin and Sutiyoso — they managed to hold the administration together,” he says.
He argues that coordination and strong law enforcement are essential for tackling land and zoning disputes as well as the city’s extensive drug-dealing networks.
“We need to coordinate with the central government as well and start to sort out our land problems. Everything is possible where there’s a will,” Hendardji says.
But he’s also looking at the softer side of the capital’s problems.
“Jakarta has to encourage local art and culture by giving incentives to hotels and restaurants to host local performers,” he says. “It has to be a 24-hour city.”
His campaign slogan, “Jakarta Bebas Berkumis” (Mustache-Free Jakarta), initially provoked Fauzi’s ire because it was taken as a reference to the governor’s trademark facial hair.
But Hendardji says “berkumis” in this case is a contraction of “ berantakan , kumuh , miskin ,” or “messy, dirty, poor,” and that the slogan is a call to clean up the city.
“There should be more super-blocks where people live in apartment blocks within walking distance of public facilities,” he says.
“Jakarta has to be free from Berkumis,” he adds.
But Hendardji’s military background has not translated into high popularity. In most recent polls, he has not even registered in the top three.
“The independent candidates are aiming at the same target group, but Faisal seems to be leading between the two,” says Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) political analyst Siti Zuhro, referring to the other independent candidate for governor, economist Faisal Basri.
Faisal is more convincing when delivering his arguments, she adds.
“And those who are more likely to vote for independent candidates are educated, rational voters,” Siti says.
Ari Setiawan, 29, an ojek (motorcycle taxi) driver in East Jakarta, is not looking for clever arguments.
“The most important thing is that they care about us, they come to our neighborhoods and provide free medication and relief during the floods,” he says. “So far only [Hendardji] has made an effort to come to our neighborhood, so most likely I’m going to vote for him.”
Ari is speaking at a badminton court, among hundreds of other residents who are waiting for Hendardji to arrive.
“Isn’t he the attorney general?” asks Muntiati, 42, who has mistaken Hendardji for his older brother, Hendarman — the former attorney general and newly appointed chairman of the National Land Agency (BPN). “He looks thinner than in the posters.”
Hendardji, the second richest of the six gubernatorial candidates with Rp 32.1 billion ($3.4 million) in assets and $405,000 in savings, ends his visit by handing out basic commodities and making a generous donation to the local orphanage.
“I’m not planning on voting, but a freebie is a freebie,” says Husein, 39.
In the cramped three-by-seven-meter room where he lives with his family of five, Husein gives his take on the promises made by Hendardji.
“We are simple people. All we need is better salaries to match the rising commodity prices,” he says.
“And fewer traffic jams.”