Showing True Colours: Identity Politics in Indonesia’s Local Elections
Showing True Colours: Identity Politics in Indonesia’s Local Elections
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Commentary / Asia 6 minutes

Showing True Colours: Identity Politics in Indonesia’s Local Elections

Identity politics is still important in Indonesian elections even though poll organisers have discouraged it and candidates have vowed to stay away from it. Without enforcement, sanction or more self-discipline, it will continue to flourish – until it backfires.

On 20 September, voters cast their ballots in three high-profile local elections – the Jakarta gubernatorial race and two polls in West Kalimantan province. They pierced their ballots after candidates canvassed their votes by putting on display their ethnic, racial and religious colours. In Kalimantan, the Dayak candidate wore the distinctive cultural motive on his jacket, Muslims wore the peci, the one-time nationalist cap now associated with their religion. A week later, the official results showed two contrasting trends making it unclear whether identity politics is a potent strategy or merely a bad move to save a desperate campaign.

Identity politics worked in West Kalimantan. In the gubernatorial race and the fight to be mayor of Singkawang, a city known for its large ethnic Chinese population, the incumbents were non-Muslims elected in 2007. They ended decades of dominance by mostly ethnically Malay Muslim leaders. West Kalimantan governor Cornelis is Catholic and Dayak, the term used for indigenous tribes from the hinterland of Borneo. He tends to wear red during campaigns, not only because that is the colour of his party but also the sign of being Dayak. In Singkawang, Hasan Karman is the first elected ethnic Chinese mayor to govern an Indonesian city and known for building the divisive dragon statue.

For their ethnic groups, these men symbolise empowerment after decades of discrimination and exclusion from local political power structures. Cornelis won while Hasan is about to challenge the validity of his defeat. The reason behind the different outcomes is similar – ethnic solidarity or lack of it.

To win, you need to have your own community behind you. In 2007, Cornelis faced three rivals, all of them Muslims who labelled themselves as Malays, the indigenous group that dominates bureaucratic positions in West Kalimantan. In the past, Dayaks had been regarded by Malays as being backward, but Cornelis won because voters from disenfranchised groups, mostly non-Muslim Dayaks and Chinese, rallied behind him while the Muslim electorate was split.

In 2012, that was a lesson his challengers failed to learn. Once again, three candidates tried to challenge him and all of them tried to elbow the others out of the way to be the Malay’s choice. Community elders tried to persuade them to unite but as Chairil Effendi, head of the Malay Cultural Customs Assembly (Majelis Adat Budaya Melayu, MABM) said: “Ambition trumped common sense and simple mathematics”. Cornelis won 52 per cent of the vote and his closest rival only got half of that.

Muslim leaders, including from the ultra-conservative Islamic Defenders’ Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI), wanted to see a provincial chief from their own group but admitted Cornelis was a good governor and his rivals only pitch was their ethnicity. Cornelis used his position as head of the Dayak Customary Board (Dewan Adat Dayak,) to solidify his base. Effendi praised the Dayaks: “They have redefined the once-derogatory term Dayak into a uniting cause for empowerment.”

In Singkawang, Muslims did learn from their defeat in 2007, especially Awang Ishak, the man who had governed the city since it first broke away from the surrounding Sambas district in 2001 as part of Indonesia’s so-called “big bang” decentralisation. Awang felt Hasan Karman snatched his job five years ago because the Chinese candidate tinkered with the voter list. Many Chinese families in Singkawang have members who live outside the city although their names are listed on official family cards, which form the basis of electoral rolls. These non-residents live in the provincial capital, Pontianak, or across the border in Malaysia or in Jakarta. Hasan himself was a lawyer living in Jakarta when he jumped into the race. Awang argued others, including minors, had used the cards of those who were not in Singkawang on election day. This has not been legally proven.

The more obvious reason for his 2007 defeat was that with three Malay candidates their vote was split.  It did not help that Awang at that time faced public humiliation after a sex video purportedly depicting him and a young Chinese woman went viral. It almost got him impeached by the local council. Five years ago, Hasan Karman garnered 41 per cent of the votes while Awang only could get 30 per cent as the Malay electorate fractured.

In 2012, Awang fought to be the only Malay candidate and Ilyas Buchori, the head of FPI Singkawang, supported him. Ilyas worked in Awang’s administration as the chief of public order before FPI opened a local branch. He allegedly bragged of threatening a Muslim politician who wanted to run at the last minute. On the other side, the Chinese made the same mistake as the Malays in 2007 after three candidates entered the race – two with Muslim running mates. One of them, Nusantio Setiadi, supported Hasan in 2007 but became disappointed with the mayor and proposed a pluralist platform calling for Chinese-Muslim cooperation, but this failed to attract significant support. Hasan maintained his 41 per cent share of the electorate but Awang did better this time with 44 per cent of the votes. The other Chinese candidates languished in single digits but received enough votes to deny Hasan a second term. Besides the split vote, Hasan also fumbled the delicate issue of ethnicity. He promoted Chinese culture and irked Malays by building a dragon statue at a public intersection in the heart of the city. He also disparaged the Malay community in an academic paper by linking them to pirates.

Less than 24 hours after polls closed, Malay motorcyclists in Singkawang made a victory lap around the city wearing yellow, the colour associated with their ethnicity. Fearing the result might be changed in the final count, they staged a rally at the election commission office as a show of support for their candidate. At the same time, Chinese families began to bring in evidence to Hasan’s campaign centre to show how they were blacked from voting. When a victory for Awang became official, Malays celebrated their return to power while the Chinese vowed to continue fighting. On 1 October, thousands of Hasan supporters, most of them Chinese, rallied against the commission when they handed over documents to what they said proved 3,000 voters had been denied the chance to vote. The unruly mob triggered a minor scuffle with baton-wielding policemen, none of whom were Chinese. Peace talks have been launched but until there is serious effort to bridge the ethnic divide the danger of sectarian violence looms. For now, like many losing candidates before him, Hasan is taking his case to the Constitutional Court in Jakarta.

A different story occurred in Jakarta. Governor Fauzi Bowo failed in his re-election bid after his campaign focused too heavily on undermining the Islamic credentials of challenger Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and spotlighting the Chinese ethnicity of Jokowi’s running mate Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, alias Ahok. Jakarta is more cosmopolitan and not deeply divided like West Kalimantan. Many Muslims in this metropolis have loose loyalty to their religion and most residents of the national capital are not part of the indigenous Betawi group. By flaunting his Betawi ethnicity and religion, Fauzi irked many Jakarta voters. On top of that, Jokowi is a political celebrity known for his creative governing as the mayor of Solo in Central Java. Given its huge size with more than 12 million residents, media image rather than grassroots networks mattered most. He may not be a Jakartan but there is no politician Indonesian broadcasters love more than the telegenic Jokowi, who in his trademark checked shirt is comfortable talking with people in slums and vocal in fighting corruption.

When Awang Ishak criticised the Chinese in Singkawang, he secured votes. But when Fauzi Bowo’s running mate uttered a racial slur against Ahok in a televised debate, it disgusted undecided voters as well as boosted the turnout of minorities. Fauzi’s campaign had already been struggling, but the ill-chosen words of his running mate was the final nail in the coffin that ensured the governor’s dream of re-election would become a nightmare defeat.

Unity in Diversity is the national motto, but these races show that identity politics plays an influential role in local elections, which can turn violent. To prevent these polls from becoming an unnecessary source of conflict, Indonesia’s politicians should learn that having a good record in government as well as more supporters and less rivals is a better strategy to win than bringing the incendiary language of ethnic rivalry into the political arena.

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