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What’s behind Jokowi’s plan to move Indonesia's capital out of Jakarta?

Two weeks after Indonesia’s recent presidential election, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo made it clear that the plan to move the capital city out of Jakarta was truly in the works.

Mr Widodo with some Jakarta residents in May. In recent months, he has spent more time at the Bogor Palace, conducting official state business and hosting foreign guests there.

Mr Widodo with some Jakarta residents in May. In recent months, he has spent more time at the Bogor Palace, conducting official state business and hosting foreign guests there.

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Two weeks after Indonesia’s recent presidential election, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo made it clear that the plan to move the capital city out of Jakarta was truly in the works.

To prove his point, Mr Widodo duly held a cabinet meeting on the matter and inspected three possible sites on Indonesian Borneo: Bukit Soeharto in East Kalimantan, Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan ─ specifically constructed in the late 1950s by President Sukarno to serve as a new capital city ─ and Bukit Nyuling, also in Central Kalimantan.

This may have come as a surprise so soon after the election, especially when it was never mentioned during the campaign. But the issue of capital relocation has been a recurring theme during Mr Widodo’s tenure.

It was first floated in 2015 before the idea quickly dissipated. Then the president revived the issue with renewed vigour in 2017 after visiting Palangkaraya.

So what lies behind Mr Widodo’s desire to build a brand new capital, especially since such an ambitious project will never be completed by the time he finishes his second and final term in 2024?

Could he have some personal reasons?

In the 1950s, the desire for a new capital city was rooted in esoteric considerations. Sukarno’s chief adviser for the move was Semaun, the first chairman of the Indonesian Communist Party.

He suggested to the president that the new republic was “genetically defective” because it was essentially a continuation of the colonial government of the Dutch East Indies. Both the main presidential palaces in Jakarta and Bogor are former residences of the Dutch Governor General.

Jakarta, formerly Batavia, was built by the Dutch in 1619 as their administrative centre. The low-lying topography of Batavia reminded the Dutch of Amsterdam.

Palangkaraya was supposedly chosen by Sukarno because geographically it is right in the centre of the Indonesian archipelago.

Sixty years later, the official arguments cited by the Widodo administration are logical enough, though a little unrealistic.

Mr Widodo’s spokesman Johan Budi said that moving the capital out of Java would be symbolically important since it would address concerns over the Java-centric nature of governance in Indonesia.

The government also argues that relocating the capital may generate economic growth for regions outside Java.  

However, Java houses 40 per cent of the country’s population and breaking its dominance in both political and economic spheres may require efforts beyond a capital city move.

Jakarta’s infrastructure — both physical and financial — and human resources remain unparalleled in Indonesia.

To illustrate, in 2010, 70 per cent of the money circulating in the country and financial transactions took place in Jakarta. Almost a decade on, despite policies meant to even out wealth distribution such as the Village Grant, the figure has only fallen to about 60 per cent.

The government also argues that Jakarta, home to more than 10 million and notorious for its traffic jams, is far too congested to allow an efficient government machine to operate.  

But given that political patronage almost always goes hand in hand with conducting big business in Indonesia, it is difficult to imagine an Indonesian capital city that does not attract a conglomeration of wealth, power and industry, along with all the problems that inadvertently creates.

Indonesia’s closest neighbour, Malaysia, moved its administrative centre from Kuala Lumpur to a new city, Putrajaya, in 1999 in a bid to ease overcrowding and congestion in the former.

Citing similar reasons, Myanmar did the same when it relocated its capital from Yangon to the newly built city of Naypyidaw in 2006.

However, Putrajaya is merely 33.7 km away from Kuala Lumpur which incidentally is still where the head of state and parliament are based.

There are also reports of how Naypyidaw, which lies 320 km away from Yangon, has failed to attract people and businesses to move there.

All this makes Mr Widodo’s idea of moving the capital from Java to Kalimantan even more curious, given that they are separated by the sea and far greater distances.

Palangkaraya, for instance, is 901 km by air and 1,404 km by land from Jakarta.  

If Jakarta is to remain Indonesia’s chief economic city after the relocation of the seat of government, the distance between the two cities will no doubt present great challenges.

The government has also stressed the importance that the new capital city be “largely free from threats of natural disasters such as earthquakes and flooding.”

Although Jakarta rarely experiences earthquakes, the low-lying city has been plagued with annual floods during the monsoon season since the Dutch era.

It has also been sinking by around 12 cm each year and a projection predicts that a large portion of the northern Jakarta coastline will be submerged by 2025.

But this has been known since the 1990s and the Indonesian government is currently building a giant sea wall to mitigate the problem with the help of the Dutch and South Korean governments.

So what was the real catalyst for Mr Widodo’s plan to abandon Jakarta altogether?

The clue lies in Mr Widodo’s renewed enthusiasm for a new capital in 2017. Curiously, this coincided with the aftermath of a series of huge public protests against the then Jakarta Governor, Basuki Tjahja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok.

An ally of the president, Ahok was later charged with blasphemy against Islam and his case was seized by Mr Widodos’s political opponents to hold anti-government rallies in Jakarta between late 2016 and early 2017.  

The most striking rally took place on November 4, 2016, when hundreds of thousands of protesters converged upon the Presidential Palace. The accessibility of Jakarta also meant that some protesters had travelled from different parts of Java and Sumatra.

Although Mr Widodo was not inside the palace at the time, he was reportedly rattled by the protest. It was undoubtedly the most serious challenge to his presidency.

As if to ward off unwelcome memories, Mr Widodo has since increasingly spent more time at the Bogor Palace, conducting official state business and hosting foreign guests there.

This year, just as the Indonesian Electoral Commission was about to make its formal announcement of the result of the presidential election on May 21, the president had also left Jakarta for Bogor.

As parts of Jakarta erupted in riots by supporters of his political opponent the following day, Mr Widodo was again carrying out his activities in the relative tranquility of the Bogor Palace.

A new capital city will be a long-term project of some magnitude, estimated to take at least a decade to finalise.

A capital outside Java promises to be even more serene than Bogor. Organising protests in a sparsely populated city far away from Java would prove to be challenging, if not impossible.

Perhaps this is the legacy Mr Widodo wishes to leave behind.



Johannes Nugroho is a writer and political analyst from Surabaya whose commentaries have appeared in the Jakarta Post and Jakarta Globe since the 1990s. He is currently working on his first novel set around the May 1998 riots in Indonesia.

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Joko Jokowi Widodo Indonesia Jakarta capital

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