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Who wants to be governor of Jakarta?

With all the complex and persistent problems that Jakarta faces today, it is baffling why anybody would be interested in holding the most difficult and loathed job in the city. Yet six men contested this week’s elections for governor of this sprawling city of over 10 million people. Provisional results indicate that two of them ...

ROMEO GACAD/AFP/GettyImages
ROMEO GACAD/AFP/GettyImages

With all the complex and persistent problems that Jakarta faces today, it is baffling why anybody would be interested in holding the most difficult and loathed job in the city. Yet six men contested this week’s elections for governor of this sprawling city of over 10 million people. Provisional results indicate that two of them will likely go on to the run-off in August.

It is not for nothing that CNN recently listed Jakarta as one of the 10 most hated cities in the world. While those who live and work in the Indonesian capital do not necessarily share the sentiment, they couldn’t agree more with the reasons the survey gives that made Jakarta notorious: clogged traffic congestion, poverty, pollution. They could add constant flooding, high crime rates, severe housing shortages, and lack of basic amenities and services like a stable supply of drinking water and power to the list. The lack of space also means that Jakarta has difficulty finding room to dump the mountains of thrash it collects every day.

And yet, someone must govern this city. Two independent counts conducted on Election Day on Wednesday gave victory to Joko Widodo, the current mayor of Surakarta, a much smaller city in Central Java. Although Jokowi, as he is popularly called, defied early predictions based on many surveys that put him in a distant second, he fell short of winning the election outright. The law requires that a candidate win more than 50 percent of the votes in order to take governorship.

The other contender in the final round will be the incumbent governor (pictured above), Fauzi Bowo (popularly known as Foke), whose leadership over the last five years has received mixed — though mostly negative — reviews. While he has improved some public services, such as education and healthcare for the poor, he has fallen short in dealing with pertinent problems such as extreme traffic congestion, inefficient public transportation, and flooding. During the election round Foke became overconfident, and his team was talking about winning before Wednesday: Like all the pundits, they were shocked by the outcome.

But the fact these two men won the tickets to the next round indicates that Jakarta voters went for experience in office over other factors when casting their ballots. With little or no experience in government, the other four candidates campaigned on their integrity, character, and moral values.

Voters weren’t event tempted to go for the candidate who promised quick fixes to all the problems that make Jakarta a barely-livable city, particularly traffic, flooding, and pollution.

That Foke remains one of the top contenders makes him the man Jakartans love to hate the most. Indeed, for much of the past five years, he was the daily target of curses and abusive expletives, as almost everybody blames him for just about everything that goes wrong in this city.

Call-in radio programs are overloaded with people venting their anger at the governor. Thanks to freedom of speech and social media, Jakartans have no qualms about letting their feelings — particularly their anger — be known to the public and to those in power, including their governor.

Caught in a traffic jam for hours? Blame Foke. Missed your flight? Curse him. Your house gets flooded? Feel free to attack the governor. Power blackout? Tap water turned off? Garbage piling up uncollected? Respiratory problems because of the pollution? Your children’s school still charging fees despite the promise of free education? Long waits at the hospital or community health center? You know who to blame.

One necessary qualification for the job of governor: You must have a really thick skin to take on all these criticisms on a daily basis.

Foke won the election in 2007 — the first Jakarta governor to be popularly elected. Before Indonesia became a full-fledged democracy in 1998, the governor was appointed by President Soeharto, and he always gave the job to military men. Some of them had been successful; chief among them was marine general Ali Sadikin, who in the 1970s transformed Jakarta from a colonial backwater into the modern city it is today.

Jakarta’s problems, however, are just too numerous and too complex for one person to solve, especially with a mandate of only five years at a time.

Residents understand this too well. They have low expectations about what the current or the next governor can do to solve these problems. Just over 60 percent of eligible voters bothered to go to the polls on Wednesday. Many left town to take advantage of the holiday, courtesy of the incumbent governor, allowing people the time to vote.

This also explains why those who did vote looked for experience in managing a city when choosing among the six candidates. At least with Foke or Jokowi, there is hope that, somehow, the problems will not get worse.

If worse comes to worst, Jakartans at least want someone they can curse about.

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