By Brittany Betteridge, an intern with the Lowy Institute's East Asia program.

When Jakarta Governor Jokowi was elected president of Indonesia in 2014, his vice governor, Ahok, succeeded him. Jokowi and Ahok had been running mates in the Jakarta gubernatorial election in 2012, with millions of Jakartans casting ballots in a closely watched race.

Upon taking office, Ahok decided to tackle one of Jakarta’s most vexing challenges; the floods that regularly inundate much of the city. He ordered bullozers to remove the homes of long-term residents of riverbank shanties. While these dwellings clogged the city’s drainage canals, the residents had previously received permission to stay but Ahok offered them neither appropriate re-housing or compensation. The governor’s actions to tackle flooding thus had a disproportionate effect on marginal communities, illustrating the problems populist governance can cause in the absence of due process.

In past decades, reformers in Indonesia argued passionately that direct local elections of mayors and district heads, like that which saw Jokowi and Ahok triumph in Jakarta, would lead to greater accountability and better governance. It was a persuasive argument and, since 2005, all local government leaders in Indonesia have been directly elected by popular vote, rather than through deals between political parties in the local legislature. Direct elections have produced leaders who are not party hacks but individuals the parties believe will be acceptable to the broader population

This process has begun to transform Indonesian politics. According to a recent ISEAS report by Diego Fossati, only 5.6% of voters in a local election based their decision on support for a particular political party, with most voters prioritising qualities of individuals and indicating they thought their favoured candidate was the best person for the job, the cleanest candidate, or had the best policies. President Jokowi, for example, vaulted to prominence as the reformist mayor of the mid-sized city of Solo before he had any strong links to his political party, PDI-P.

However, this enthusiasm for direct elections and the independent leaders they produce masks a mixed record of local governance.

Some local leaders’ reputations for clean governance or flashy reform have allowed them to consolidate popular support; examples include Tri Rismaharini of Surabaya, Ridwan Kamil of Bandung, and Jokowi during his time as mayor of Solo. Risma, as the no-nonsense Surabaya mayor is known, initiated pro-poor policies on access to healthcare and education. Her focus on developing more green spaces helped Surabaya win several environmental awards, including the 2012 ASEAN Environmentally Sustainable City Award. Kamil focused on technology, green spaces and waste management to secure his strong support base in Bandung. Jokowi also advanced pro-poor policies, reducing bureaucratic red tape and introducing protection for smaller local markets in his time as mayor of Solo. All three candidates placed an emphasis on transparent government, and adopted an authentic, everyman style in their campaigns.

But the same populist pressures that led to reform in Solo, Surabaya and Bandung have failed other communities. Religious divisions have long plagued Bogor, with a former mayor infamously defying a Supreme Court ruling to restore a construction permit for a Christian church. His Australian-educated successor, Bima Arya was expected to be a cosmopolitan reformer and to be pro-active on minority rights. He promised in his election campaign to root out corruption, promote law and order, and resolve the conflict over the church. 

But, as Lies Marcoes has noted, Bima Arya has been anything but pluralist. The church remains closed, and the city has now banned Shi’a Muslims attending celebrations of the Asyura feast in Bogor. More recently, Bima Arya inaugurated the new Bogor office of Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), an Islamic group that rejects the concepts of the nation state and elections, and classifies them as Western imports. Marcoes speculates that frustration among Bima Arya’s original supporters with a lack of progress on his reformist agenda may have prompted him to try and bolster support by turning to Islamist populism.

Bogor is not the only place where campaign promises of clean and corruption-free government have not yet translated into practice. In 2014, it was estimated that more than half of Indonesia’s local leaders were under investigation for corruption. Local direct elections are expensive to contest, and those without strong links to political party machinery must find a way to fund an election effort. Financial support is often obtained from local businesses which can reinforce money politics and compromise future reform. In the Sumatran province of Lampung, Ridho Ficardo was elected after receiving millions of dollars in donations and advertising from Sugar Group Companies. The company has often funded candidates in areas with sugar plantations to ensure the election of a district head sympathetic to its land lease requirements. In this way, those not beholden to the party machinery may become beholden to strong local business interests that aided their election. 

Despite the relative independence of some directly elected local leaders, many are still subject to party politics and pressures of patronage. Even the most popular figures must contend with pressure from party leaders: last year, PDI-P chair Megawati Sukarnoputri scolded President Jokowi for not following party directions. Presently, PDI-P is considering naming Risma its gubernatorial candidate in Jakarta, despite her stated intention to remain in Surabaya. If such a popular local leader can be made to step down from her position by her party, it would set a new and troubling precedent for party control over directly-elected local officials.

Many analysts assumed Jokowi’s meteoric rise to power represented a replicable process that would build national reform from the local level, but there are limits to what even the most successful reformers can achieve. Individuals, even those who derive their power from a popular mandate rather than the party machinery, cannot sustainably will transparency, accountability, and a focus on development into being. Successful reform is dependent on institutions: the judiciary, political institutions and news media that rigorously holds politicians to account.

Photo: Bregas Dewanto/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images