THE AHOK LES­SON

The proof of any po­lit­i­cal sys­tem is in the eat­ing

New Straits Times - - Opinion - john­teo808@gmail.com The writer views de­vel­op­ments in the na­tion, the re­gion and the wider world from his van­tage point in Kuching, Sarawak

THE elec­tion for Jakarta’s next gov­er­nor on Feb 15 was in­con­clu­sive since no sin­gle can­di­date achieved over 50 per cent of votes cast. A run-off elec­tion is sched­uled on April 19 that will pit the two can­di­dates with the strong­est show­ing against each other.

In­cum­bent gov­er­nor Ba­suki Tja­haja Pur­nama (com­monly known as Ahok) had been the run­away favourite from the start to win re-elec­tion eas­ily. Yet, he chalked up only 43 per cent of the votes last month. He thus has no choice but to face off di­rectly against for­mer ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter Anies Baswedan in what is likely to be a de­bil­i­tat­ing duel next month.

The lo­cal polls in In­done­sia’s cap­i­tal city have cap­tured in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion for the sim­ple fact that Ahok is a Chris­tian and eth­nic Chi­nese in a coun­try that is over­whelm­ingly Mus­lim. It is rare for a mi­nor­ity In­done­sian politi­cian to gain such promi­nence in the coun­try’s young democ­racy.

Ahok’s can­di­dacy had in­spired a le­gion of grass­roots fans — mostly young, well-ed­u­cated and as­pi­ra­tional — who fanned out early to gather sig­na­tures in shop­ping malls and other pub­lic places across the city to di­rectly in­duct him into the race. Such sup­port­ers cared about only one thing: that they liked what they had seen of Ahok in of­fice.

Ahok had started to get Jakarta moving again (lit­er­ally) with his no-non­sense man­age­ment style since suc­ceed­ing to the job af­ter his then boss Joko Wi­dodo ran and was elected pres­i­dent in 2014. A non-re­li­gious, non­ra­cial elec­toral cam­paign based on noth­ing other than sheer com­pe­tence is al­most too good to be true any­where in the world and it was some­thing not just many In­done­sians but its well-wish­ers else­where were cheer­ing about.

Alas, once more, it is again sadly proven that if it is too good to be true, it usu­ally is! Soon enough, po­lit­i­cal cam­paign­ers of a more re­li­gious bent started whis­per­ing if any non-Mus­lim should lead Mus­lims in Jakarta. Ahok, quick-tem­pered to a fault, coun­tered by quot­ing from the Qu­ran him­self.

If his de­trac­tors had in­tended to set Ahok a trap, he fell right into it. The re­li­gious an­gle took on such a life of its own that hu­mon­gous ral­lies — two of them — sub­se­quently brought cen­tral Jakarta to a near-com­plete stand­still. Ahok never quite re­cov­ered from these im­pres­sive shows of pop­u­lar might and his win­ning mo­men­tum lost steam, per­haps ir­repara­bly so.

Ahok’s po­lit­i­cal bat­tles in Jakarta are an ob­ject les­son not just for In­done­sians but also for us in Malaysia with her in­her­ent and di­vided elec­torate. If Ahok’s eth­nic­ity (more than his re­li­gious back­ground, given that a size­able mi­nor­ity of In­done­sians are

pribumi Chris­tians) can­not stay largely hid­den in the course of an elec­toral cam­paign in a coun­try where eth­nic Chi­nese are pro­por­tion­ally only a tiny frac­tion of what they are in Malaysia, our own eth­nic-based pol­i­tics and po­lit­i­cal par­ties be­come that much eas­ier to un­der­stand.

Some seem to ar­gue that the way pol­i­tics is or­gan­ised in this coun­try tends to­wards ac­cen­tu­at­ing those di­vid­ing lines. The fact that mul­tira­cial par­ties ex­ist here and have not man­aged to garner mass pop­u­lar ap­peal with vot­ers ap­pear to sug­gest that in any demo­cratic con­test, iden­tity pol­i­tics al­most nat­u­rally comes to the fore.

Po­lit­i­cal par­ties, like busi­ness en­ti­ties in any free mar­ket, serve as mere con­duits to chan­nel pop­u­lar as­pi­ra­tions ex­pressed through the bal­lot box. Race- or re­li­gious-based par­ties are there­fore al­most log­i­cally part of the nat­u­ral equa­tion in democ­ra­cies. The ex­is­tence of such par­ties is not so much be­cause the par­ties them­selves per­sist in do­ing so but be­cause vot­ers want them to!

That this hap­pens not just in sup­pos­edly less ma­ture democ­ra­cies is brought home, per­haps, most glar­ingly by the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump as United States pres­i­dent last year. Pop­u­lar in­se­cu­ri­ties of one sort or an­other make politi­cians por­tray­ing an “us-against-them” mes­sage par­tic­u­larly res­o­nant with sig­nif­i­cant sec­tions of vot­ers.

This is, of course, never an is­sue of moral­ity in pol­i­tics. In­di­vid­ual na­tions are within their own right to pick a po­lit­i­cal sys­tem best suited to their in­di­vid­ual needs, or rather, a sys­tem with their own unique bal­ance of var­i­ous in­ter­ests and im­per­a­tives ob­tain­ing in in­di­vid­ual coun­tries.

The proof of any po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, as with most things, is in the eat­ing. Ours has with­stood the pas­sage of time, af­ford­ing us pre­cious po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity over decades, so suc­ceed­ing gov­ern­ments are able to fo­cus not so much on pol­i­tics, but on delivering the real goods to vot­ers — eco­nomic pros­per­ity.

Vot­ers elect the gov­ern­ment they de­serve in a democ­racy, and, they are usu­ally right.

Ba­suki Tja­haja Pur­nama or bet­ter known as Ahok

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