Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan has managed the Covid-19 crisis well but he's still falling in opinion polls. Image: Facebook

In a perfect political world, Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan would be scoring major points for standing up to the central government and compelling a clearly reticent President Joko Widodo to follow his lead in enforcing tighter social restrictions to control the Covid-19 pandemic.

But while the former education minister has shown glimpses of genuine leadership in his crisis management, any chance of it elevating him into the 2024 presidential race remains a distant hope judging by his slump in recent opinion polls.

For starters, he will likely have to contend with Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, head of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), and House Speaker Puan Maharani, daughter of ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) matriarch Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Looming in their wake, for now, are a range of other new-generation leaders, including former vice-presidential candidate Sandiaga Uno, 50, and several provincial governors whose reputations have been comparatively enhanced by their handling of the pandemic. 

Pluralists and other social progressives, who in an earlier time would have been Baswedan’s constituency, appear as bitter as ever at the way he aligned himself with Islamic conservatives in ousting ethnic Chinese-Christian incumbent Basuki “Ahok” Purnama three years ago.

What irked them the most was his association with Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) firebrand Rizieq Shihab, one of the leaders of the anti-Purnama 212 Movement who fled to Saudi Arabia in May 2017 to escape charges of posting sexually-explicit messages on the Internet.

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

Baswedan’s populist inauguration speech didn’t help either. Despite being of Arab heritage, he gaffed by using the word pribumi (native) to differentiate between the Indonesian citizenry, suggesting that he was sympathetic to the identity politics that cast Purnama as an outsider because of his Chinese origins.

With that lingering resentment, his move to challenge Widodo by imposing a partial lockdown of Jakarta in early April may have backfired to some degree, especially when an ill-planned  transportation shutdown brought sharp criticism from commuters.

“A lot of people still don’t see anything good about him (Baswedan) and are not willing to give him credit for anything,” says one unforgiving civil society activist. “Many think that what he has done (during the pandemic) he should have been doing anyway.”

Baswedan won by 43% of the vote in 2017, hardly a landslide win, and then only with the support of a large number of Purnama’s Muslim admirers who were negatively swayed by a charge of blasphemy that eventually led to the otherwise popular governor serving two years in jail.

The whole unhappy episode earned Baswedan a reputation for blind ambition and as well as the ire of Widodo, whose resignation from the Jakarta governorship to run in the 2014 presidential election allowed Purnama, his trusted deputy, to take his place. 

Baswedan’s role on the Widodo campaign team was rewarded with a Cabinet post, but he failed to meet the expectations of those hoping for a sweeping reform of the education system, seen as crucial to transforming Indonesia’s economy. He was replaced after only 20 months.

Similarly, his performance as governor pales in comparison with the hard-charging Purnama. While the pandemic may have brought out the best in Baswedan as a crisis manager, he is still seen to have been riding largely on the achievements of his two predecessors.

Women wear face masks and queue to buy low-cost groceries at a government foods stock center in Indonesia, May 14, 2020. Photo: AFP/Chaideer Mahyuddin

The grandson of Arab-Indonesian activist Abdurrahman Baswedan, one of the country’s founding fathers, Baswedan’s perceived flaw lies in his alleged betrayal of the principles that brought the young Muslim intellectual into politics in the first place.

One long-time friend has always struggled to understand him. “He’s like a mirror,” he says. “People see what they want to see. Sometimes we could only presume what he thought about things. He was hard to read because he gave nothing away. Basically, he appears to be all ambition and little substance.”

Other acquaintances say the missing element is trust. At least that’s what Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) researcher Ahmad Najib Burhani concluded in a recent academic paper published by Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Burhani believes that distancing himself from hardline groups and reconciling with former allies and supporters would increase Baswedan’s chances of winning the presidency in 2024, but may take a lot more just to get him on the ballot. 

Regional leaders who are receiving plaudits for their Covid-19 containment work are West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil, 48, and his second-term Central Java counterpart Ganjar Pranowo, 51, both of whom also acted independent of the central government despite their warm relations with Widodo. 

“They don’t talk openly about their personal ambitions,” says one political analyst, “but both see the big picture and both are very capable. They are much less provincial than Jokowi (Widodo) and they do have the potential to go further in testing the waters.”

Although it is early days, a May survey of possible presidential contenders had Prabowo leading by 14.1%, a big drop from 22.2% in the same poll conducted in February, followed by Pranowo (11.8%, up from 9.1%), Baswedan (10.4%, down from 12.1%) and  Kamil (rising from 3.1% to 7.7%).

Prabowo has been out of the public eye since the viral outbreak, but that is likely to change as the country edges closer to the next election cycle and rumors rise about a return to an indirect presidential election.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (R) shakes hands with Prabowo Subianto (L) after the former was sworn in for a second term as president at the parliament building in Jakarta on October 20, 2019. Photo: AFP/Achmad Ibrahim

Sources close to the retired general, 68, say they have no doubt he will run again in 2024. “He’s very mindful of not trying to eclipse the president,” says one. “But he’s got his second wind since he became defence minister. He’s in his element.”

Because West Java’s jurisdiction encroaches on Jakarta’s outlying suburbs on three sides, Kamil has been working with Baswedan in formulating physical distancing and other restrictions that require close collaboration, not normally a strong suit among Indonesian officials.

An American-educated architect with a stream of progressive ideas, the former Bandung mayor won the West Java governorship in 2018 in a tight four-way race, overcoming a string of attack ads accusing him of not being Islamic enough.

Kamil’s victory in Indonesia’s most populous and conservative province, which has handed Widodo resounding defeats in two consecutive presidenital elections, showed that despite Purnama’s downfall to primordial forces a year earlier, a solid track record still matters to some voters.

Ganjar is a member of Widodo’s PDI-P, but the fast-rising star may be seen by party matriarch Megawati as a potential threat to her daughter Puan, a reminder of the way another populist party functionary named Widodo came out of nowhere to upend any ambition she may have had of running for the presidency again in 2014.

In East Java, which has seen the sharpest surge in Covid-19 cases in recent weeks, the pandemic has opened a split between provincial governor Khofifah Parawansa, 55, and popular Surabaya Mayor Tri Rismaharini, 58, who ends her term this year as the country’s first female mayor.

A stalwart of the mass Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Parawansa’s early reluctance to tackle the looming health crisis put her at odds with Risma, as she is better known, and the mayors of Gresik, Batu, Malang and Sidoarjo.

Motorists ride past a mural referring to the condition in the Capital Jakarta and surrounding areas on June 10, 2020, Photo: AFP/Aditya Irawan/NurPhoto

It was also a stark reminder of her failure, as the then-parliamentary representative, to support tens of thousands of Sidoarjo villagers displaced after an oil drilling company owned by tycoon Aburizal Bakri triggered a massive mud volcano in May 2006.

Both women are East Java natives, but unlike Khofifah, Risma has a more fiery personality with a reputation for being thin-skinned. A workaholic, she is also prone to temper tantrums and throwing things at subordinates who bring her bad news.

The word in media circles in Surabaya is that the outgoing mayor is planning to move to Jakarta to carry the PDI-P banner against Baswedan in the 2022 gubernatorial elections — assuming, of course, he will seek re-election instead of setting his sights on higher office.