On July 11, Jakartans will vote for their next governor. Contrary to initial expectations, the candidates lined up are among the smartest and most qualified leaders in the country. In short, the hapless but well-funded incumbent, Fauzi Bowo, faces real competition.
Moreover, the presence of the highly praised Solo Mayor Joko Widodo, the incorruptible former People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) head Hidayat Nurwahid and hard-hitting economist Faisal Basri proves that men (and women) of real quality can and will enter politics — restoring some degree of public confidence in the process.
However, two prominent Indonesian figures are looming behind the polls. They’re not on the actual ballot, but no matter.
On the one hand there is the forthright presence of Prabowo Subianto, the former Army general and Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) leader. On the other hand is Sri Mulyani Indrawati, the implacable anticorruption fighter, former finance minister and now managing director of the World Bank.
Sri Mulyani’s presence is represented in “spirit” by the two independent candidates — Faisal Basri and Hendardji Soepandji. Both men were able to get their names on the ballot by dint of a new rule allowing nonaffiliated candidates to run, provided they gather enough ID cards and signatures from registered voters.
There is no doubt their inclusion and relative success will help determine whether Sri Mulyani and her powerful backers choose to make a move on larger political prizes in 2014. Just as with the Jakarta polls, the mere possibility of being a viable independent candidate could be enough to convince Sri Mulyani that running for president would be worth her while.
However, the most prominent non-candidate in the Jakarta polls is Prabowo. Having been instrumental in ensuring Joko Widodo’s candidacy and lobbying for Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (formerly of Golkar and also fondly known as Ahok) as Joko’s running mate, Prabowo has influenced the contest from the beginning.
The Gerindra chief appears in both print and television advertisements in support of the candidates. Indeed, he is a dynamic presence at a moment when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, consumed by his party’s internal problems, appears unmoving, if not altogether frozen.
There is no doubt Prabowo is using these Jakarta polls as a dry run for his presidential campaign, testing out his loose strategic alliance with Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) at the same time.
Certainly the pairing of Joko and Ahok, the latter an ethnic Chinese House of Representatives member, is replete with historical ironies. Back in 1998, as Indonesia reeled from currency contagion, bank failures and power plays, a wave of violence swept Java. It started in Jakarta and later engulfed Solo to tragic effect.
Rightly or wrongly, many blamed Prabowo for the destruction and atrocities visited upon them. The ethnic Chinese in particular were infuriated with the general.
By seeking out Ahok — an outspoken and extremely credible ethnic Chinese politician from Belitung Island, Prabowo has moved to win over those who still distrust and feel uneasy about him. The fact that Jokowi is also the mayor of Solo — a once badly charred city that has been turned around — further reinforces Prabowo’s ambition.
So as Jakartans go to the polls next Wednesday, they should remember that electing a governor is just one of the agendas at hand.
Should the much-loved Jokowi and Ahok manage to force a second round of balloting, Prabowo Subianto will have shown his mettle as a candidate for president in 2014, effectively proving his electability in a city that only 14 years ago quaked at his presence.
Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Indonesia and Malaysia.