Lessons from the Jakarta elections

Jakarta's governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (left), better known as "Ahok", with his wife Veronica (right) and son Nicholas show off their ink-stained fingers after casting their votes in Jakarta on February 15, 2017. - AFP

IF all you read is the Western media, you would probably frame the Jakarta gubernatorial elections in terms of the opposition towards incumbent governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok.

Over the past few months, protests, organised by hardline Islamists groups, have erupted in Jakarta against Ahok’s purported insult of a surah in the Quran,. The embattled politician was subsequently charged in court for blasphemy for his comments.

The opposition and protests towards Ahok purely based on ethno-religous lines is certainly a worrying trend. But we must always remember that Indonesia is a country of 240 million people. While the spotlight of the elections is on Ahok, we must not forget that in Indonesia, democracy is alive and well. It is the biggest democracy in South-East Asia, an amazing achievement considering that the country embraced the system less than two decades ago.

As many as 7.1 million people are eligible to vote in the gubernatorial elections. Greater Jakarta itself has a population of 30 million people.

Voters in gubernatorial elections elect the Governor and the Deputy Governor together as a team. In the first round of the 2017 elections, three teams vied for the coveted office -- incumbents Ahok and Deputy Governor Djarot Saiful Hidayat were challenged by the team of Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono and Sylviana Murni, and the team of Anies Rasyid Baswedan and Sandiaga Salahuddin Uno.

A candidate team must obtain more than 50% (i.e. majority) of the votes to be elected. If no team manages to obtain the majority of the votes, the elections will move on to a second round and the team with the lowest number of votes will be eliminated.

Contrast this with the first past the post system which is used in elections in Malaysia, where the candidate with the most number of votes, but not necessarily the majority, will win the election.

After the first round concluded, Ahok-Djarot garnered the most votes with 42.9%, Anies-Sandiaga a close second with 40.05% of the votes and Agus-Sylviana third with 17.04%. This means that Agus-Sylviana are eliminated, and the elections will go to a second round as no one team managed 50%.

The two-round system may be more costly than the conventional first-past-the-post voting system, but it ensures that the winning candidate team is elected by the majority of voters. With the first-past-the-post system, a person may be elected even if he obtains less than 50% of the votes if there are more than two candidates.

Campaigning for the gubernatorial elections has been intense, even without the controversy surrounding Ahok. The teams even participated in a series of televised debates about issues relating to Jakarta.

Remember, this is an election to "merely" elect a governor of a city, yet they have televised debates. We barely have any debates on television, let alone featuring candidates in an election.

Will we ever see elections for the post of Kuala Lumpur mayor? Not any time soon. Despite the fact that Kuala Lumpur is the biggest city in Malaysia and the most populous, with an estimated population of 1.7 million people, the mayor is appointed by the Federal Government. And the mayor is further answerable to a Federal Territories minister, who is currently a person elected by the people of Putrajaya, not Kuala Lumpur. At least the current minister is elected, the previous minister was not even a Member of Parliament. 

So while the biggest story out of the Jakarta elections is the controversy surrounding Ahok, we in Malaysia would do well to learn about democracy from our neighbours.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.

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