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Jakarta Governor bucks Indonesia’s party politics

JAKARTA — Since becoming Governor of Jakarta in 2014, Mr Basuki Tjahaja Purnama has shown little patience for incompetent bureaucrats or alleged “budget irregularities” — the local term for corruption.

JAKARTA — Since becoming Governor of Jakarta in 2014, Mr Basuki Tjahaja Purnama has shown little patience for incompetent bureaucrats or alleged “budget irregularities” — the local term for corruption.

His new target is a political system run by aloof oligarchs.

Mr Basuki, 49, has vowed to run to stay in office in February as a political independent. His goal is to separate himself from the powerful national parties that have emerged during Indonesia’s transition to democracy, which began with the collapse of the military-backed dictatorship of President Suharto in 1998.

Mr Basuki has long been considered a political outsider, partly because he is a Christian and an ethnic Chinese steering the capital of the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, and his decision to run without a party affiliation has shaken the country’s political establishment.

Since Indonesia began holding free elections in the late 1990s, independent candidates have won lesser local government and legislative posts, but Mr Basuki’s breakaway is by far the most significant. Jakarta is the country’s political, social and economic centre, accounting for 16 per cent of the national gross domestic product in 2015, according to the country’s Central Statistics Bureau.

Most of the 10 parties that have seats in the country’s Parliament and cabinet are run by political dynasties, former army generals or business tycoons who bankroll them.

The rest are Islamic-based groups whose political ideology changes depending on which of the bigger parties they can latch onto in a coalition.

Regional-level politicians are mostly beholden to their political masters at national offices in Jakarta, who can accept or reject their planned candidacies even if they are doing well in opinion polls. And parties usually demand that candidates pay a fee to run and require them to finance their own campaigns, analysts say.

Mr Basuki, in effect, has positioned himself as an alternative to a national political system “that many in Jakarta are fed up with”, said Ms Charlotte Setijadi, a visiting fellow with the Indonesia studies programme at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “I think that this is an image that will serve him well for this election.”

The Governor, the grandson of a tin miner from Guangzhou, China, has a reputation for bluntness. He has his detractors, including squatters whose slum neighbourhoods have been demolished to make way for public works projects and commercial developments, and political adversaries who have questioned a land reclamation project in North Jakarta that is under investigation by the country’s anti-corruption agency.

But his style has won over many, in particular younger voters and lower-middle-class families. They have also been swayed by his administration’s policies, including fast-tracking infrastructure projects, among them a mass rapid transit system, the sprucing-up of the city with a small army of street sweepers, and the institution of a “smart card” programme to subsidise healthcare and education for the poor.

Recent polls have indicated that Mr Basuki, popularly known as Ahok, has double-digit leads over several other possible candidates for the February 2017 election, and that more than 80 per cent of probable voters want him to run as an independent.

“I don’t want to disappoint the young people,” he said to reporters recently after announcing his decision. “I told them I will be an independent, but they have to understand that this is a sacrifice.”

The Governor can thank one particular group of young people for helping him to buck politics as usual. A grassroots volunteer movement that is autonomously backing his plan says it has already collected the signatures of the 525,000 Jakartans — roughly 7.5 per cent of the city’s eligible voters — needed to cement his place on the ballot.

The group, Teman Ahok (“Friends of Ahok”), says it will not stop until it gets a million signatures, which must be verified by the country’s General Elections Commission.

Working out of a one-story house in South Jakarta, the group’s members have been remarkably resourceful. They have created an app, for example, enabling motorcyclists to pick up signature forms and deliver them to the group’s office at no cost.

To pay for its operations, the group also sells Ahok merchandise, including T-shirts, stickers and bracelets, although it did receive an initial donation of 500 million rupiah (S$50,510) from a political consultancy in Jakarta to help it get up and running.

Mr Basuki and Teman Ahok leaders have separately said that they are not collaborating and that they have met in person only three times.

Mr Basuki, who was previously deputy governor of Jakarta, assumed the city’s top position in November 2014 after his boss and predecessor, Mr Joko Widodo, was sworn in as the country’s seventh president.

But as he waited to become governor, he resigned from his political party, the Great Indonesia Movement Party, known as Gerindra, after it pushed through legislation in Parliament eliminating direct elections for provincial governors, mayors and district chiefs.

Critics called the legislation, which was later overturned, a mean-spirited attempt to keep regional leaders under the control of Jakarta by having them appointed by local legislatures dominated by major parties.

Mr Widodo himself, despite being President, is only a rank-and-file member of his party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), and has at times been hamstrung in carrying out policies and appointing senior officials because of opposition from party leaders.

Analysts said Mr Basuki apparently did not want to suffer the same fate. He spurned an offer to run under the umbrella of the PDIP, whose chairwoman is Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri, a former president, the daughter of Indonesia’s founding father, Sukarno, and a leading member of the country’s political elite.

Now the party has made it clear that it will try to stop what senior members have called “deparpolisasi”, an Indonesian term meaning the weakening of the political monopoly of large parties by independent candidates such as Mr Basuki.

The Jakarta campaign chief of the party said it was speaking with Gerindra and other establishment parties to jointly nominate a candidate to challenge Mr Basuki, The Jakarta Post reported.

During Jakarta’s 2012 governor’s race, when Mr Basuki was Mr Widodo’s running mate as the candidate for vice-governor, opponents made issues of his ethnicity and religion. But one recent survey indicated that nearly two-thirds of the city’s residents felt ethnicity and gender would not be issues in the February election.

Mr Sandiaga Uno, a prominent businessman who is likely to be one of Mr Basuki’s opponents, has acknowledged that the Governor’s independent run should wake up the political establishment.

“If they don’t get the right candidate that is supported by the people, they would be facing an independent bid that is supported by the people,” he said. “Political parties need to come up with a strategy to attract the best talent.” THE NEW YORK TIMES

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