THE AHOK LESSON
The proof of any political system is in the eating
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