Even though income and education levels are higher in Jakarta than elsewhere in the country, the capital’s track record in the exercise of basic democratic rights is not exactly admirable.
During Jakarta’s first gubernatorial election in 2007, only 64 percent of voters turned up for the two-way contest that Fauzi Bowo ended up winning.
Aryanto, a 27-year-old computer programmer, was one of the approximately 2.4 million people who did not vote.
“I never voted; I’m never convinced about the candidates. Besides, I just don’t believe what politicians say,” he says.
Aryanto adds that he dislikes how candidates only end up prioritizing their respective political parties’ interests before those of the people.
“The problem is that if someone wants to run, he has to get support from a political party. And later, every time he does something it’s because the party says so,” he says.
It’s voters such as Aryanto who renowned economist and independent candidate Faisal Basri is targeting.
“There is no better time than right now for independent candidates to join the race, when people’s trust in political parties is at rock bottom,” he says.
The July 11 election is the first time that independent candidates — those not supported by any political party — will appear on the ballot for City Hall.
No money politics
In Lubang Buaya, East Jakarta, around 200 women have gathered in a local musholla , or prayer room, to wait for Faisal.
“We’re here to celebrate the birthday of my son and to celebrate Isra Mi’raj [the prophet Muhammad’s Ascension Day],” says Yuliah, 53, who also heads the neighborhood women’s Islamic study group.
Most of the women have never seen or heard of Faisal before and are curious to hear what the candidate has to say.
“I know Biem Benyamin, but I don’t know who this one is,” says Hasna, 43, referring to Faisal’s more popular running mate, who is the son of the late Betawi comedian Benyamin Sueb.
When Faisal and his entourage, a group of no more than six men including two Jakarta Police officers, arrives, a small group of performers singing praises to Muhammad welcomes them.
No stranger to the gubernatorial elections, Yuliah says that she used to work for a campaign team that promised her at least Rp 1 million ($105) to canvas support for the candidate. “But in the end I didn’t get anything,” she says.
But it was not money that Yuliah was after when she decided to invite Faisal to her gathering. “I’m tired of fake promises. When I heard of Biem and Faisal, I felt a calling that I should invite them,” she says.
“Besides, I still wish for a Betawi native to lead Jakarta,” she adds, referring to Biem.
In his talk at Lubang Buaya, Faisal links the traits of a leader according to Muhammad and the essence of Ascension Day, a journey to self-betterment.
“So far the government has not shown true leadership. In this neighborhood, if you want to have good roads and electricity, you have to work on it yourselves. Rich people don’t have to worry about something like that because the government takes care of it for them,” Faisal says.
He says he will not hand out money or freebies in order to earn votes.
“If I give you money and you vote for me, our deal is done. If I win, I have no obligation toward you,” he says. “But I don’t want it to be like that. Vote for me, and if I win it will be our victory.”
Handiyani, 29, a member of Faisal’s core campaign team, says the candidate has been using these “unorthodox” messages throughout his campaign.
“It is heartening that despite no promises of money, we are still invited by many communities and neighborhoods to talk,” Handiyani says.
It is also the team’s strategy to use direct approaches and “heart-to-heart” conversations. With campaign season officially kicking off on Sunday, other candidates’ schedules are packed with campaign rallies. But Faisal is sticking to his low-key approach, making personal visits to local neighborhoods.
After his speech in Lubang Buaya, Faisal stays on for another hour, talking with the residents and taking pictures with them.
“Being an independent candidate gives you more freedom. There’s no party intrusion, so we can talk directly to the people. There are no envelopes [of cash], and they even treat us [with food],” he says.
“A heart-to-heart contact is actually much tougher because it doesn’t end after the campaign. I realize that we have no allies in the City Council, so that’s why I have to make sure that the people support us.”
But this approach doesn’t seem to be helping meet the campaign’s hefty financial requirements. Faisal and Biem have been trying to raise a Rp 15 billion war chest, but they have so far managed just a third of the amount from donations and a recent auction of Biem’s personal belongings.
It might also be limiting the amount of voters they’re reaching. Opinion polls have consistently shown how Governor Fauzi Bowo, backed by the Democratic Party, leads the race, with Solo Mayor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, backed by the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), in second place and closing fast.
Only one survey, conducted earlier this month by the University of Indonesia and the Cyrus Network, put Faisal in second place after Jokowi.
But Faisal believes there is an audience for his message, especially with daily revelations of political parties mired in graft cases stoking public dissatisfaction with the political establishment.
“Even if I don’t win, I’m glad that I’m part of the movement that wants to set our politics right, and I hope that everyone involved will gain valuable experience from this,” he says.
Political analysts agree. “Since independent candidates don’t have party backing, their key strength is their respective communities,” says Siti Zuhro from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI).
“It’s the middle-class voters who are more fed up by political parties and can be more rational and therefore more likely to vote for independent candidates.”
To reach this group, campaign team member Handiyani says they have embraced tools like Twitter and YouTube.
“We’ve also approached young role models such as Billy Boen [the Hard Rock Cafe Jakarta owner] and singer Glen Fredly,” she says, adding that like other supporters and volunteers, none of these people seek payment for their endorsement.
She says that with most of the core campaign team younger than 45, the messages getting out are catchy and relevant.
But Siti says it’s impossible to win over the previous abstainers this way.
“They might still refrain from voting this year, but that’s OK. It’s more important if with the independent candidate they become aware of what is going on and their curiosity is piqued,” she says.