Jakarta’s election for governor can be seen as pitting three new forces against each other. But scratch the surface of the campaign sheen, and it’s obvious that it is old elites and their struggle for control of national politics that still really matter, writes Dwi Kiswanto.

Indonesia is getting set for one of the country’s most crucial political events this year, with seven provinces, 76 districts and 18 municipalities electing new leaders this Wednesday. These elections will help determine the nation’s faith in the future of local bureaucracies that are left in the hands of prominent elites currently battling it out in the political arena.

The coverage of local elections, understandably, has captured the media’s attention and the public’s imagination, implying a scale up of political awareness in the state. Voters have been bombarded with an overwhelming number of campaigns and debates, the political instruments that have been most widely deployed to project candidates’ visions and programs.

But it is Jakarta’s gubernatorial election that has been the most talked about, overshadowing other local votes. Why?

The fact that Jakarta is the capital of the country not only indicates means that the political interests of actors and elites are closely aligned, but also erases the boundary between national and local politics. During this election campaign, this has manifested in a high degree of involvement by elites from particular political parties, and chaotic political conflicts among candidates’ supporters in real and virtual platforms. This normally occurs only when immoderate political roles and positions are being contested.

Agus Yudhoyono, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, and Anies Baswedan have used several intriguing gimmicks in their efforts to secure the governor’s throne. Agus Yudhoyono, the son of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, gave up his advancing military career to fulfil his new leadership ambition, enjoying the full support and machinery of his father’s alliance of political parties.

The incumbent, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, also has distinct advantages, as he has already been directly involved in Jakarta’s governance for the past five years. However, he has been plagued by controversy (not least an ongoing blasphemy case and massive protests). He hasn’t been helped by his confrontational style of rule and personality, nor by his sudden switch from being an independent to a candidate supported by several major parties.

Lastly, Anies Baswedan, an inspiring academic figure and the former minister of education, is now gambling his fortune and reputation by diving into the abyss of local politics.

At the outset, the list of candidates might seem somewhat normal, but looking more deeply at the political context, these three elites can be deemed as an early representation of the potential political polarisation for a bigger political contest — the 2019 presidential election.

At first glance, Agus seems a young, fresh, educated, and patriotic figure; a new hope amid the slow turnover of old elites who have dominated Indonesian democracy and politics for so long. However, his promising leadership does not appear to be as appealing at second glance, particularly as he hails from an old political dynasty with conventional power interests.

On the other hand, Ahok has created good momentum with his unorthodox leadership style, slowly marching into the limelight of national politics and setting a favourable standard for effective governance. But, his personality and style have seen mixed responses, constituting a sense of acceptability and unacceptability at the same time, despite ample support from national political figures. Time is needed to prove whether this is the ideal form of future leadership in Indonesia’s democracy.

Anies, with his philosophical and wise image, depicts an idealism. He locates his leadership between theoretical, practical, and moral references, a balance of what might be labeled ‘eastern valued technocracy’. But, he seems to lack a sense of ‘freshness’, with his initial charisma fading once he decided to enter the world of politics.

It is naive to argue that the above three figures are only fighting for control over Jakarta’s administrative territory, and if they are, then the political machinery behind them is clearly not. The entanglement of Jakarta’s politics with national politics is vivid and straightforward; the authority and policy-making processes that Jakarta boasts are directly embedded in Indonesia’s national power constellation.

The fact that power and resources are concentrated in Jakarta makes the result of Jakarta’s gubernatorial election formative to other strategic political decisions. The role of political parties cannot be separated from the individuals running in this election. Parties remain powerful gatekeepers in filtering cadres for political regeneration or nurturing political dynasties; meanwhile individuals are simply subjects, whose works are eventually oriented to a party’s agenda.

This is one of the consequences of the implementation of direct local elections in a decentralised state, especially after the new election bill seems to repress independent candidacy. Although, there is a positive trend of better relationships between political leaders and their voters, it is political elites who still matter the most.

This was seen during one of the televised political debates for Jakarta’s election. Candidates were questioned about their concerns over the relationship between candidates and parties, and how they would navigate the interests of their supporting parties and ensure they weren’t controlled by political elites. None of the candidates was able to posit a satisfying and clear answer.

Worry was only heightened when they were asked about their commitment to be governor for five years and not be tempted to compete for the presidential election in the middle of their reigning period. All candidates elucidated abstract and ambiguous arguments that left the point unanswered.

At this point, it can be argued that when casting a vote, it is better for voters not to focus on a candidate’s programs and visions. Even to some politically knowledgable voters, most of the candidates’ proposed programs seem to be financially and administratively unrealistic. Voters should instead assess the commitment and the political burdens each candidate has to national elites, because their votes reflect how they define their interests and how they want to be represented in an inclusive political system.

Dwi Kiswanto is a PhD candidate in Politics and International Studies at SOAS, University of London.