Last week Ian Wilson wrote in a New Mandala articlesubsequently republished at the Jakarta Post and a number of other English Language publications, as well as being translated into Bahasa Indonesia by Tirto—about issues of inequality and poverty that didn’t feature prominently in discourses surrounding Jakarta’s gubernatorial election, either in local or international mainstream media.

The critical content of Wilson’s article was largely aimed at the campaigns of both sides in the second round of the election. I agree with the main goal of the article, namely to oppose the dominant narratives in the Jakarta election, which have been framed in binary terms (‘diversity vs. sectarian populism’), and express the issues of inequality and poverty that are of paramount importance and therefore ought to be a priority of political programs. But my agreement is accompanied by two corrections and one additional note.

Allow me to quote one sentence that summarises the article’s content and forms its main thesis. Wilson says:

While the campaigns present, at one level of analysis, a stark contrast between ‘diversity’ on the one hand and sectarian populism on the other, a shared point of commonality is the respective silence regarding a significant shaping force in Jakarta, and arguably the election: rising levels of economic inequality.

I agree in part that the issue of inequality is ‘a significant shaping force in Jakarta’. But—and this is my first correction—I don’t agree that the issues didn’t appear in the campaign, if this is what’s meant by the phrase ‘the respective silence’.

A zero down payment housing scheme (aside from the issue of whether this is feasible or not), the reclamation issue, evictions, and matters such as the Jakarta Smart Card (KJP) and the Jakarta Health Card (KJS) were framed in the narrative that one candidate sided more with the poor while the other sided more with the rich. This was all related to inequality, although the term may not have been explicitly used. In other words, the issue of inequality, as well as poverty—implicitly or explicitly, substantially as well as rhetorically—was present in the campaign.

Following the lines of argument of the article, it seems more proper to say that these issues were not in silence or ignored, but rather exploited or politically instrumentalised. One part of Wilson’s article has indeed suggested this, i.e. when he points out the business conglomerates behind each candidate. Regarding the incumbent’s camp, supported as it was by large parties and some developers, things are clear enough. In the challenger’s camp, Wilson mentions Hashim Djojohadikusumo, Hary Tanoesoedibjo, and Sandiaga Uno himself—all of whom are in the list of Indonesia’s fifty richest people. ‘The conspicuous silence from Anies’ supporters surrounding Hary’s backing, despite the racialised attacks on Ahok’, says Wilson, ‘is indicative of its instrumentality.’

My second correction is to the part saying that the level of inequality in Jakarta, as well as Indonesia more generally, is rising. From a hyperlink in the article, it appears Wilson says so with a reference to a report by Indonesia’s Bureau of Statistics (BPS) published early 2015.

Wilson’s data need updating. The latest BPS report, published in February 2017, shows that inequality in Indonesia is declining overall: from a Gini ratio of 0.402 in September 2015, to 0.397 in March 2016, then 0.394 in September 2016. Inequality in Jakarta also fell, from a Gini ratio of 0.421 in September 2015, becoming 0.411 in March 2016, then 0.397 in September last year.

Some may say that the decline in those figures isn’t so significant, and inequality generally is still a grave problem. Indonesia is the world’s fourth most economically unequal country on earth (according to a prominent Credit Suisse report) with its four richest people holding more wealth than more than 100 million of its poorest people (according to an Oxfam report this year). But still, the figures shown by BPS are clearly declining, not rising.

The Indonesian daily newspaper Kompas covered the BPS report on 24 February this year and illustrated in a graphic that inequality in Jakarta in national rankings also declined: from third place in September 2015 to eight in September 2016. We’d best not forget that this is Jakarta, the metropolis, a destination for many people from all over to come and seek out a livelihood. In other words, the challenge to minimise inequality in the capital city is bigger compared to many other provinces, if not the biggest. (A side note: the most unequal province is the place where I live, Yogyakarta, whose national inequality ranking jumped from fourth place to first between 2015 and 2016).

One more thing: the exit poll by Indikator Politik Indonesia released after the second round of voting showed that 58.4% of respondents said that economic conditions in Jakarta were better than the year earlier, 23.4% said that there was no change, and the remainder said conditions were worse or did not provide an answer. If this exit poll is sufficiently representative of Jakarta’s voters, then it weakens Wilson’s argument somewhat.

The last thing I’d like to add is that inequality, as well as poverty, may well be ‘a significant shaping force’ in the Jakarta gubernatorial election. But once again, based on the exit poll, it is not the most significant one. It’s true that, as has been reported by Tirto, the majority of poor citizens in Jakarta did not choose the incumbent. But this only illustrates the profile of the voters, not their motivations while voting. In other words, the poor did not necessarily vote for a certain candidate because of their poverty.

What was the issue that most influenced the majority of voters? (Or, to borrow Wilson’s phrase, the most ‘significant shaping force’ in the Jakarta election?) As Tirto also reports, based on survey institutions’ reports, the answer is religion. A total of 32.5% of voters said they voted because of religious reasons. The second most commonly-cited reason was to do with job performance, at 14.5%. 58% of the challenger Anies’ voters said they made their choice because of religious motivations, and 31% of incumbent Ahok’s voters chose because of ‘performance’. The minimal conclusion we can draw here is that the religious factor is indeed important and real, and media worried about the Islamists getting more powerful have a point of truth though their binary ‘pluralism vs. sectarianism’ narrative is not entirely justified. Inequality and poverty are of paramount importance, but so is religion.

Why must religion still be considered important, even when we’re talking about efforts to campaign on issues of inequality in electoral politics? Because: how can we talk about poverty if the issue of politics based on (semi-)primordial identities hasn’t been dealt with?

Even if religion’s role was merely instrumental, and not essential, the remaining question that needs answering is: why was it religion that became a conduit for the anxieties of the downtrodden (or, in Marx’s language, become ‘the sigh of the oppressed’)? This is a question whose answer can be found in the research and work of Wilson himself about the Front Pembela Islam (FPI) and Forum Betawi Rempug (FBR). In his publications, Wilson more or less concludes that FPI and FBR are strong at the grassroots, adept at being a ‘morality racketeer’ downwards and cultivating political patronage upwards.

Mainstreaming the issues of inequality and poverty requires political education—including how religion ought to be placed in electoral politics—so religion doesn’t become a conduit used for channeling anger. It’s politics that decides who gets what. It’s politics that positions who will have power to regulate economic matters. If it’s economic regulation that we position as an end (ghayah, in Islamic terms), then politics in its general sense, or electoral politics in particular, is the means (wasilah). If that goal is an obligation to be undertaken, then, to borrow a legal maxim of Islamic jurisprudence (qa’idah fiqhiyyah), ‘a means in whose absence an obligatory end will not be fulfilled is obligatory as well’ (ma la yatimm al-wajib illa bihi fahuwa wajib)—but this is not to be confused with the ‘ends justify the means’ ethical philosophy of instrumentalism.

This issue is indeed complex, and defies simplification into binary narratives, whether ‘diversity vs. sectarian populism’ or ‘pro-elite vs. pro-poor’. The world of everyday politics, at the local or global level, is likewise complex. This complexity also exists in what Wilson offers in his article, i.e. in drawing whether or not there are causal links from inequality, to religion’s becoming a channel for anxiety, to the ‘significant shaping forces’ in Jakarta’s election.


Azis Anwar Fachrudin graduated last year from the Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies (CRCS), a master’s program in Religious Studies at the Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Studies, Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM), Yogyakarta, and is now working as a staff member at the same institution. This post originally appeared in Indonesian at his personal blog and was translated by Liam Gammon. An additional Indonesian language version will also appear at

Header image courtesy of Ray Yen.