Jakarta Governor’s Race Goes Online, With Mixed Results for Indonesia’s Democracy
September 19, 2012
The residents of Jakarta, Indonesia’s chaotic, smog-choked capital, head to the polls on Thursday, September 20 to elect a new governor, rounding off what has been a surprisingly engaging, and at times messy, new chapter in the country’s maturing democracy. This is not the first time that Jakartans have voted in free elections, but it is the first time that social media has played a prominent role in the campaign.
Indonesia has more than 43 million Facebook users, and Jakarta was recently named the most active Twitter city in the world. Following the first round of voting in July, Thursday’s runoff polls will see the incumbent, Governor Fauzi Bowo, up against Joko Widodo (commonly known as Jokowi), the popular reformist mayor of the Central Java city of Solo. In a competitive and sometimes bitter race, both camps have sought to harness the country’s exploding social media base – with varied success.
Jokowi’s team, which won a greater share of the votes in the first round, has run a savvy change-focused campaign, featuring public forums on Skype, upbeat YouTube videos, and an Angry Birds-style computer game in which Jokowi lobs exploding tomatoes at corrupt officials.
On Sunday, in what was ostensibly an unpaid show of support (paying people to attend campaign events is a common occurrence in Indonesia), more than 2,000 Jokowi fans held a flash mob on Jakarta’s main thoroughfare, while Fauzi campaigned just 100 meters away. With professional photographers on hand, Jokowi’s supporters danced to a One Direction song, with dubbed Indonesian lyrics highlighting the megacity’s many intractable problems like traffic congestion, flooding, and bribery in the public service. The spectacle finished with dancers removing their jackets to reveal Jokowi’s trademark red and blue-checkered shirt. The original Jokowi-One Direction video that inspired the dance has racked up more than a million views on YouTube since it was posted late last month.
Fauzi, meanwhile, has run a comparatively staid campaign, relying mostly on support from his traditional patronage networks, such as the civil service, neighborhood leaders, and teachers. When he has tried to deploy Jokowi-style tactics, the difference between the two candidates has been stark, with Fauzi calling on the support of a deeply uncool – and some would say bigoted – former singer of the local music style dangdut, Rhoma Irama.
Alongside the candidates’ campaigns, a lively discussion has played out online, with more than half a million tweets about the two candidates generated in one month over July and August. Despite social media having emerged as a new battleground in Indonesian politics, it has yet to translate into greater engagement on policy substance, or critical reflection on complex problems. While Jokowi’s town hall-style Skype discussions represent an exciting development, the rise of social media in the campaign has been marked more by the ugly exploitation of ethnic and religious issues.
Much of the online animosity has targeted Jokowi’s running mate, a candidate who is ethnically Chinese and Christian, Basuki Tjahja Purnama (commonly known as Ahok). A shady viral video called “Chinese Cowboy” warned of a repeat of the 1998 riots that targeted ethnic Chinese if Chinese Indonesians chose to vote in the runoff. On Twitter, baseless rumors even circulated that the professional Jokowi campaign was thanks in part to millions of dollars of support from the Vatican.
One of the worst offenders has been the incumbent’s running mate, Nachromi Ramli, who, in the face of significant media discomfort over the growing role of race-politics in the campaign, engaged in some casual racism on Sunday night’s televised debate, using a mock Chinese accent to greet Ahok. This followed an incident where Fauzi supporters in the audience at a joint public declaration for a peaceful election booed and taunted Ahok with racial slurs.
Perhaps most depressing is that pundits have noted that these dirty tactics have been effective, with recent surveys suggesting the race will be closer than originally thought. The liberal magazine Tempo observed with some distress on Monday that far more voters seem to have had a problem with Ahok’s religion than the fact that the Jokowi ticket has been generously funded by former Suharto-era strongman and 2014 presidential frontrunner Prabowo Subianto.
Meanwhile, the state has struggled to keep up with the dynamics of this new online-based campaigning. Both the General Election Commission (KPU) and the Election Supervisory Committee (Panwaslu) stated they did not have the authority to supervise social media content, and campaign regulations do not yet contain provisions for regulating official campaigning via social media. The KPU, missing an important opportunity, has not taken advantage of social media for its voter education efforts in either round of the race.
It’s already clear that a noisy online campaign does not necessarily translate into a greater turnout at the ballot box. With the exception of the “Gecko versus Crocodile” dispute between the Corruption Eradication Commission and the police, and the “Coins for Prita” campaign, social media in Indonesia has been historically quite poor at mobilizing citizens into political action. Yet if Jokowi is able to claim the governor’s title on Thursday, as expected, the implications for the approaching 2014 legislative and presidential elections are significant. At the very least, Indonesia can expect more polished campaigns with candidates who attempt to engage more actively with their citizens. Whether this engagement is able to move beyond superficial and tokenistic point scoring remains to be seen.
Tim Mann is a program officer in The Asia Foundation’s Indonesia office. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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