A man tries to fix his house's electric meter after heavy rains in Jatinegara in Jakarta, January 2, 2020. Photo: Anton Raharjo/Anadolu Agency via AFP Forum

JAKARTA – Parliamentarians weren’t impressed when Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan and his West Java and Banten counterparts Ridwan Kamil and Wahidin Halim failed to show up for a public works commission hearing on the floods that have been crippling parts of the Indonesian capital.

It could be bad news for Baswedan, the former education minister who was elected governor in 2017 after popular incumbent Basuki “Ahok” Purnama was accused of committing blasphemy in a campaign speech and subsequently jailed for two years.

Often touted as a front-runner for the 2024 presidential election, Baswedan’s political future, rightly or wrongly, could ride on what he does and doesn’t do to solve a problem that in a late February downpour even left the city’s iconic downtown traffic circle under water.

As busy as Baswedan may have been, snubbing Parliament may not have been such a good idea, even if it does provide a platform for grandstanding politicians to demonstrate their supposed concern.

When it comes to floods, long-suffering Jakartans are unforgiving. Giant strides have been made in flood control in the last decade, but the run-off from over-built watershed areas in the hills around Bogor, 70 kilometers to the south, continues to foil efforts at keeping Jakarta dry.

Hydrologists insist Baswedan can’t take all the blame, noting that Bogor and Jakarta’s other flood-hit satellite cities of Bekasi and Depok are in the jurisdiction of governor Kamil, 48, a US-educated architect who is also believed to have presidential ambitions.

The dilemma for the 50-year-old Baswedan, however, is that few people are willing to cut him any slack after seeing their neighborhoods disappear underwater yet again. And in politics, perceptions are everything.

Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan (C) visits the ‘Cap Go Meh’ festival that marks the end of the Chinese Lunar New Year celebration in Jakarta, February 19, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via Anadolu Agency/Anton Raharjo

According to the same experts, the blame cannot be laid at the doorstep of climate change either, when records show that January and February have always been Jakarta’s wettest two months of the year.

Looking back over the past decades, it was only in 2007 and 2015 that the world’s 18th biggest – and reputedly fastest-sinking — city has experienced a downpour of more than 9.9 inches in a single day.

While the previous big flood was caused by a whopping 19.6 inches of rain falling on New Year’s Eve and January 1, the latest event on February 24 was triggered by six days of continuous overnight rain that dumped 9.9 inches on the already water-logged city.

A better target of public ire may be the property developers who have been building malls and apartment blocks without installing proper drainage systems, sometimes in areas that have never experienced floods before or where mitigation work had once proved effective.

Developers often fail to integrate their project’s drainage system with the city-wide network, which would seem to suggest that municipal inspectors are not doing their jobs.

As one hydrologist puts it: “They (the developers) make sure they don’t flood, but where the water goes then is not their responsibility.”

Baswedan’s image wasn’t helped by Jakarta administration secretary Saefullah, who in a week of insensitive public statements advised citizens to “just enjoy” the floods. “This is about water management,” he said. “Two-thirds of our body is made up of water.”

A woman wades through flood waters in Jakarta, February 25, 2020. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency/Eko Siswono Toyudho

But what makes the governor an easier target is his failure to allocate funding to continue what the ousted Purnama had prioritized: the rehabilitation of the polluted Ciliwang River, the longest of 13 flood-prone waterways which bisect the sprawling capital.

Only half of the Ciliwang has been restored on its 33-kilometer-long journey from the southern suburbs to the sea. But, unlike his predecessor, Baswedan has been reluctant to sacrifice some of his popularity by clearing slum dwellers from the river’s banks.

Now, after a social media onslaught, a public spat with Public Works Minister Basuki Hadimuljono and a lecture from President Joko Widodo, who stepped away from his duties as Jakarta governor to run for the presidency, Baswedan may be forced to change tack.

In the meantime, the city administration is planning to create 55 new green spaces, covering 271,650 square meters, to ensure that floodwaters, particularly in low-lying parts of the metropolis, will seep faster into underlying aquifers.

Parks currently occupy only 9.9% of Jakarta’s total metropolitan area, a much lower ratio than Singapore (47%), Sydney (46%) and Shenzen (45%), but also an improvement on cities like Taipei and Mumbai where green spaces range between 2.5% to 3.6%.

Although the floods and the rate the city is sinking are often seen as the main reasons for Widodo’s plan to move the capital to East Kalimantan, future city fathers will need no reminding that Jakarta will remain the country’s commercial and financial center.

President Joko Widodo inspects an urban development project in Jakarta in a 2014 file photo. Photo: AFP/Romeo Gacad

The president is forging ahead with the move, with the government hiring three international consulting firms and the National Development Agency (Bappenas) and announcing a soft ground-breaking as early as July once a master plan for the new US$33.5 billion capital has been finalized.

Baswedan casts himself as an independent, but the Sharia-based Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS) which supported him in the gubernatorial race has come rushing to his defense, arguing that without a deputy governor to help him he is a man alone.

PKS, a known political foe of Widodo, and Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto’s Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), Baswedan’s other supporter in 2017, have been engaged in a prolonged tussle over who gets to fill the deputy’s position. 

A municipal spokesman told Asia Times that the city council still has to settle on a voting procedure to choose between auditor Nurmansjah Lubis, 50, a founding PKS member, and Gerindra’s Ahmad Riza Patria (50), a former national legislator who failed in last year’s election.

The inter-party scrap is partly due to the fact that the two erstwhile allies are now on opposite sides of the political fence. PKS remains in the opposition, while Gerindra is now part of the ruling coalition, which controls 74% of the seats in the House of Representatives.

Neither have declared their presidential candidacies, but a recent Indo Barometer poll had Prabowo and Baswedan as the two front-runners for 2024, with the former leading the latter by 41.4% to 23.3%. Prabowo’s 2019 vice presidential candidate, Sandiago Uno, was a distant third at 8.7%.

Prabowo, 68, has a national profile from two previous bids for the presidency. Baswaden may have age on his side, but he is also a divisive figure, especially after the events that led to the downfall of Purnama, the first ethnic Chinese Christian to hold such a high public office.

Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan (3rd-L) at a reunion rally of the Islamist 212 Movement that brought down Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, December 2, 2018. Photo: AFP Forum via Anadolu Agency/Anton Raharjo

Nobody seems to be listening these days, but the same Islamic hardliners who conspired to bring him down are now grumbling over Widodo’s appointment of the newly released Purnama as president commissioner of state oil company Pertamina.

Asked whether he was disappointed at the current flood situation in Jakarta, Purnama told Tempo magazine last month: “Now people can see Ahok worked really hard. The problems of this country will never end if we choose leaders based not on merit, but on primordialism.”

It was a telling remark given the fact that tens of thousands of city residents, urged on by clerics in suburban mosques, voted against Purnama on purely religious grounds, despite him earning a reputation in a brief 30 months in office of being one of Jakarta’s most effective ever governors.