Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan during a swearing-in ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, October 16, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta
Former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan during a swearing-in ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, October 16, 2017. Photo: Agencies

Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan recently marked his first 100 days in office after an election campaign that played on religious and racial divisions while promising low-income city dwellers generous social programs. While he continues to stir divisive controversy it’s not clear he’ll be able to deliver on his populist vows.

Baswedan’s campaign offered a glimpse of what might be on the horizon as Indonesia gears up for what are expected to be heated parliamentary and presidential polls in 2019. And his first 100 days may also provide forewarning of the bait-and-switch policy tactics national level politicians may deploy to win elected office at next year’s polls.

Baswedan made common cause during his campaign with the hardline Islamic Defenders Front, a morality brigade best known for smashing up bars in the name of Muslim values. The group contributed to the mass rallies staged against incumbent governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian – a deciding factor in the election result.

Purnama stood accused of insulting the Koran during one of his campaign speeches where he said a verse had been cited to deceive voters and justify the assertion that Muslims should not be led by non-Muslims. He was convicted shortly after last April’s vote of blasphemy and is now serving two years in prison.

The sentencing put the capital’s significant ethnic Chinese population on edge considering past paroxysms of political violence that have targeted the minority group, including anti-Chinese riots in the capital in 1998. Purnama was the first ethnic Chinese to lead Jakarta in over half a century.

Some feel that Baswedan, a former education minister in President Joko Widodo’s government who is now more aligned with the political opposition, re-aggravated the situation by insinuating that pribumi, a politically loaded word for native Indonesians, should play a larger role in the country during his October 16 inauguration speech.

Anies Baswedan (2L) and his running mate Sandiaga Salahuddin Uno (L) pray during an event held by the election commission. Photo: AFP/Goh Chai Hin

“I find it peculiar that Anies, who has previous experiences in pluralism related activism, chose the one word which has a long history of racial prejudice on the day which marked the beginning of his rule in Jakarta,” said Christine Susanna Tjhin at Jakarta’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank.

She said the racially charged comment “did little to convince those who have felt disillusioned by his electoral maneuvers.”

Until last year’s campaign, Baswedan was largely viewed as a devout but moderate Muslim who was far more concerned with maintaining Indonesia’s state motto of ‘unity in diversity’ than play up to hardline Islamic interests.

Indeed, he developed a reputation as a staunch supporter of pluralism and Pancasila, the country’s secular and inclusive founding ideology while rector of Jakarta’s Paramadina University.

Baswedan’s lean towards hardline interests, however, has continued in the early phases of his governorship. For instance, his recent reversal of a regulation outlawing religious activity at the National Monument, better known as Monas, in Central Jakarta was also viewed as a nod to the country’s Muslim majority at the expense of religious minorities.

Long seen as a neutral and apolitical icon in the city’s center, Monas played host to the heated “anti-Ahok” rallies that helped to catapult Baswedan to power. While now open to all recognized religions, critics say it will inevitably prioritize Islamic events.

Supporters of Jakarta governor candidate Anies Baswedan react as Baswedan leads the count at the Petamburan flat polling station in Jakarta, Indonesia April 19, 2017. Reuters/Beawiharta

An offer made by Baswedan’s administration to host Christmas prayers at the monument was declined by the Indonesian Communion of Churches (PGI), a Christian group, which said it would prefer to celebrate at an exhibition hall rather than exacerbate any residual anti-Christian sentiment in a public ceremony.

“There have been concerns over [Baswedan’s] lack of initiative in toning down – let alone stopping – zealotry during the election campaign. So, when the sudden offer for Christmas at Monas, a place where memories of the 212 (anti-Ahok demonstration) is still fresh, concerns of being politically manipulated in public spaces emanated,” Tjhin said.

His public policies are also courting controversy. A plan to convert Jatibaru Raya street in the capital’s busy Tanah Abang market area into a car-free street hawker zone has frustrated traffic police and infuriated commuters who say the policy has worsened the city’s already infamous traffic jams.

The street conversion was one of the governor’s first moves after his October inauguration and has since come to dominate his leadership. This week, Baswedan promised to launch an investigation into reports vendors have begun subletting tents provided by the city for up to four million rupiah (US$297) each.

Shoppers at the Tanah Abang traditional market in Jakarta, Indonesia, June 29, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Iqro Rinaldi

The roll-out of an awaited low-income housing policy is the next test. Aimed at solving an affordable housing shortage for low wage earners in the capital, the program was a centerpiece of Baswedan’s election platform. Industry analysts and even Bank Indonesia economists have panned the program’s zero-deposit loans and massive construction as unrealistic and expensive.

Sugianto Tandra, a researcher at the Center for Indonesia Policy Studies, says the small-scale pilot program should be given the benefit of the doubt and judged on implementation.

“It will work, to some extent, as the housing project is aimed at only initially providing 700 houses for 700 buyers, so it should be manageable,” he said. “Seven hundred first home buyers won’t be hard to find, so the first thing to do would be ensure the first 700 are prudently selected.”

Tandra notes that the pilot project is markedly different from Baswedan’s campaign promise, with Jakartans who earn under seven million rupiah (US$515) a month now eligible. Initially touted as a solution to housing shortgages in the capital for minimum-wage earners, the policy now more clearly targets middle-income residents.

With a minimum wage of 3.6 million rupiah a month, the low-income families targeted during Baswedan’s campaign are now unlikely to be able to participate. His city government has promised other options will be made available for the poor in time, but navigating that will be difficult. “Can he scale this up and if so what kind of policy is he envisioning?” asks Tandra,

Baswedan’s plans to shut down the Jakarta Bay reclamation project, which envisions 17 man-made islands developed off the coast of north Jakarta for mixed use, similar to Singapore’s Sentosa Island, also looks unlikely to be implemented.

Students wade through a flooded street in Jakarta, Indonesia February 6, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan and other government officials warned that the controversial project, long embroiled in corruption allegations involving city officials and private sector developers, would go ahead regardless of the now-governor’s wishes.

The project, launched by Purnama in 2015 and modeled after similar schemes in Dubai and the Netherlands, aims at preventing the city from eventually sinking below sea level.

Baswedan’s strong support for environmental activists who argued the project would devastate the bay and fishing communities in North Jakarta was a deliberate jab at Purnama, who faced near constant demonstrations on accusations he was indifferent to the impact the project would have on local livelihoods.

With regional elections elsewhere in the country slated for June and the political class looking towards the presidential and parliamentary elections next year, Baswedan will likely be given some breathing room to implement policies in the months ahead.

But perceptions are already gathering that he and his running mate knew at the outset their many populist promises would be impossible to deliver once in office.

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