Baswedan's Rise Stoking Indonesia Election Flames

(MENAFN- Asia Times)

JAKARTA – Newly retired Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan is emerging as the opposition candidate for Indonesia's 2024 presidential election with his three-party coalition holding strong and removing a potential obstacle to its unity by giving him a free hand in choosing a running mate.

That is likely to be Democrat Party chairman Agus Harimurti, the 44-year-old son of ex-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who ran unsuccessfully in the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election in which Baswedan deposed Chinese-Christian incumbent Basuki“Ahok” Purnama, an ally of President Joko Widodo.

Media magnate Surya Paloh's National Democrat Party (Nasdem) has made no obvious demands of Baswedan, 53, and in a key decision this week the Islamic-based Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS) said it supported him“unconditionally.”

The move – and the momentum it is likely to create – will put more pressure on ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) leader Megawati Sukarnoputri to announce her candidate, a choice between poll-topping Central Java Governor Ganjar Purnowo, or her daughter, parliamentary speaker Puan Maharani.

Clearly anxious not to get out ahead of the matriarch, the charismatic Purnowo, 54, remains a man of mystery, who says little of substance, performs under the radar and has rebuffed efforts by prominent political and military figures to get to know him better.

Although he is likely to be endorsed by Widodo, the only time he has done anything forthright is to issue a strongly worded podcast in which he warned that Indonesian jihadists were capitalizing on social media to spread their dangerous ideology.

“Social media is being controlled by people who are not sane,” he said, quoting two senior clerics by name.“There are plenty of sane people also on social media and they should not remain silent, otherwise false information will take over.

“It is time for the educated people to come down from the mountain,” he went on in what could be taken as a reference to Baswedan.“Together, let us have a jihad against social media so that this country will retain its sanity.”

Pranowo's poll numbers owe in part to Widodo's popularity, now running at 71% despite grumbling in Jakarta over the way associates are benefiting from their proximity to the president and the feeling that PDI-P is hostile to business.

Ganjar Pranowo's popularity owes in part to Widodo's. Image: Facebook

Civil society activists say in his single-minded pursuit of economic prosperity, which Pranowo could well emulate, Widodo ignores the impact legislation like the recently enacted Criminal Code, bureaucratic red tape and a failure to rein in corruption have on overall investor sentiment.

Baswedan's spokesman, former energy minister Sudirman Said who ran against Pranowo in the 2018 Central Java gubernatorial election, told Asia Times that despite government efforts to undermine the alliance“we are getting stronger in terms of spirit and steps forward.”

Widodo was reportedly annoyed with Paloh for not informing him beforehand of Nasdem's decision to break ranks and join the opposition alliance behind Baswedan, who has now edged ahead of Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto in the polls.

But the president has so far resisted removing Nasdem's three Cabinet ministers in retaliation because of Paloh's pledge, made during a recent palace meeting, to stay loyal to the governing coalition through the rest of its five-year term.

The bearded tycoon was the first senior political figure to support Widodo when he ran for the presidency in 2014 – and again in 2019 – both times against Prabowo, leader of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra).

Prabowo, who has forged a coalition with the fifth-ranked National Awakening Party (PKB), already spends most of his weekends on the stump, a sign he is pressing ahead with a third bid for the presidency in what is shaping into a three-way race – the first since 2009.

Analysts believe the retired general is motivated in part by the need to ensure the 85-seat Gerindra retains its popularity. Although it is ranked third in Parliament behind Golkar, former president Suharto's political machine, it is a surprising second in the latest poll.

The Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI) has PDI-P on 21.9%, well clear of Gerinda (12.1%), the Democrats (7.1%) and Golkar (6.7%), which recently recruited popular West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil, 51, in an effort to halt its slide over the past two election cycles.

Basweden's challenge now will be to sell himself as a centrist and try to persuade minority voters he did little to stir the pot himself when Islamists launched the demonstrations that led to Purnama's subsequent imprisonment for blasphemy.

In the five years he occupied Jakarta's town hall, Basweden sought to shake off his image as a closet extremist by issuing licenses for 30 new Christian churches, including one in North Jakarta which he personally inaugurated a month before he stepped down.

But his relations with Widodo and powerful business interests among the Jakarta elite are rocky and could work against him if Megawati chooses Pranowo and the president backs the governor as his potential successor.

Voters who supported the third-placed Harimurti in the first round of the 2017 gubernatorial election swung behind Baswedan in the run-off that gave him a 16-point edge over one of the capital's most popular governors.

With religion as the issue, Purnama was always vulnerable, particularly when a poll showed 52% of the leaders of the supposedly tolerant mass Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama thought a Christian should not be Jakarta's governor.

The Jakarta Post described the election as“the dirtiest, most polarizing and most divisive the nation has ever seen, far worse than the 2014 presidential election” when Widodo edged out Prabowo in a surprisingly close race.

Anies Baswedan (3rd-L) and Ulema greet people at Monas Square during a reunion rally held by 212 Rally Alumni in Jakarta, Indonesia on December 2, 2018. Photo: Anton Raharjo / Anadolu Agency

Boston University professor Jeremy Menchik, author of Islam and Democracy in Indonesia, accused Baswedan of choosing power over pluralism and using the mantle of“defending Islam in order to win political power.”

“There is cause for alarm when a pedigreed intellectual like Baswedan deploys a craven election strategy,” he wrote in New Mandala, an online publication hosted by the Australian National University.“He knows better.”

Baswedan was circumspect in his criticism of Purnama in riding the 2016-17 wave of unrest to victory, but he did compare the election to the 624CE Battle of Badr when the Prophet Muhammad defeated an army of non-Muslims.

Failing to distance himself from the controversy, he also said Purnama's offensive use of a verse in the Koran during a campaign speech was“unnecessary and irrelevant” and had upset Jakarta's Muslim population.

“You use words and ways that disrespect people's feelings about something that is considered sacred by others,” he told Purnama in a written statement.“This is a diverse nation, so respect that diversity.”

But the governor did not comment on his opponent's subsequent two-year jail term, and he took pains to welcome his release. Shying away from politics, Purnama has been president commissioner of the Pertamina state oil company since 2019.

Until the gubernatorial election, Baswedan had previously been viewed as a moderate Muslim in keeping with his family background as the grandson of a prominent Arab-Indonesian nationalist, freedom fighter and pioneering diplomat.

He wrote his PhD thesis at the University of Northern Illinois on democracy and decentralization and later spent seven years as the rector of Paramadina University, founded by renowned pluralist Nurcholish Madjid, who died in 2005.

He was made education minister in Widodo's first Cabinet, but apparently didn't perform as expected in a ministry notorious for its conservative, deeply rooted bureaucracy and was replaced in July 2016 after two years in the job.

His electoral victory in 2017 left his critics questioning his political trustworthiness, rather than his abilities as a manager who has transformed Jakarta's streets. As one observer who requested anonymity put it:“He has a legacy of being too slippery and opportunistic.”

People who know and have worked with the former governor are convinced he is not a fundamentalist and say he is more open to the world, pointing to trips he has taken to Europe, Britain, Singapore and now Australia over the past eight months.

They also believe he will be tougher on corruption at a time when Indonesia has fallen 14 places in Transparency International's annual Corruption Perception Index, leaving it where it was at the beginning of Widodo's presidency.

As Indonesia approaches its sixth democratic election since the end of Suharto's authoritarian regime in 1998, more attention is turning to where the country is headed given the lack of a genuine parliamentary opposition.

An Indonesian voter casts her vote at a gubernatorial polling station in Jakarta in a file photo. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency /Jefri Tarigan

Many analysts note that 2024 is not just about a change in political leaders. It could also determine whether the wealthy businessmen surrounding Widodo will survive the transition, one of the reasons why talk of giving the president a third term persists.

“Indonesia is living proof that a developing country's political elites can embrace democracy for entirely pragmatic reasons, even when their democratic principles are paper-thin,” US academic Dan Slater wrote in the January edition of Journal of Democracy.“Furthermore, they can do so while keeping their country fully independent...”

But in noting a political system that has become increasingly shorn of checks and balances, he added:“Weak and flawed democracies like Indonesia are becoming an endangered species as more and more of them tumble into outright authoritarianism. They must be protected.”


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