What is so special about the gubernatorial election in Jakarta? For starters, the election has a record number of candidates: six. Also, two sitting governors, the incumbent in Jakarta, Fauzi Bowo, and Alex Noerdin, from South Sumatra, as well as a mayor, Joko Widodo from Solo, are running, as well as two independent candidates. But, as usual, the election of a new Jakarta governor is of great strategic importance.
The complexity of the challenges the city faces goes beyond classic urban problems such as traffic congestion, flooding, a water crisis and the management of waste. In Jakarta, problems of education, poverty, gangs, air pollution and environmental degradation have become part of the backdrop of this leviathan of a capital city.
A crucial issue facing this metropolis is a lack of space due to overpopulation. This results in a variety of complex problems, such as conflicts over land use, management of water, lack of public transportation and the real risk that Jakarta will sink below the waves due to rising sea levels and subsidence.
The candidates on the campaign trail have promised to solve all these problems. Some even say it will be possible to turn things around in no more than three years. But is that realistic?
Efforts to solve the problems of congestion and flooding, as the candidates have promised, should be appreciated. But we must realize that things are not always as easy as they seem. When it comes to complex urban issues, we have to realize that a lot of problems are not fully under the control of Jakarta’s next governor, whoever that may be.
No large city anywhere in the world has been successful at eliminating flooding and traffic congestion in just a few years. And no city has done it on its own. The intervention of the central government is required both politically and financially, as well as in terms of organization with neighboring areas if the necessary changes are to be made.
One important question to ask is how Jakarta can solve its congestion problems if 51 percent — Rp 9.09 trillion ($963 million) in 2011 — of its revenue comes from taxing gasoline and vehicles and when there are more than 1,000 new vehicles on the roads every day.
The rapidly rising number of gas-guzzling vehicles on Jakarta’s roads continues to be driven by the growth of the automotive industry and lubricated by the banks in the form of easy credit. The congestion problem is being further exacerbated by the woeful public transportation on offer. Fixing public transportation should be a priority for the new governor.
Floods in Jakarta will never be eliminated. Period. This is largely because it is not something that is fully under the control of decision-makers in the city. Changes in land use (upstream and within the city itself) continue to affect the flow of water and change the capacity of drainage systems and rivers. This is because canals tend to be narrower and shallower due to illegal building and accumulated sediment and debris. Outlying areas of Greater Jakarta need to be involved in a coordinated plan to solve the problem and this cannot be done by the Jakarta governor alone.
Although Jakarta’s budget is Rp 41 trillion, it is still relatively small compared to the severe problems the city faces. With an area of about 662 square kilometers and a population of over 12.5 million, Jakarta largely serves the interests of the central government bureaucracy, representatives of foreign countries, international institutions and the expectations of people living in a modern city.
The city budget is only sufficient to keep the city on its feet and maintain its daily routine. The central government has failed to set aside a much-needed special fund that the governor of Jakarta could use for vital projects in the city. This has to change.
It remains to be seen who will be able to convince the most voters on Wednesday that they deserve the job of running the city. But when it comes to solving Jakarta’s complex set of problems, we can only hope for a realistic leader willing to look beyond the city limits and who’s in it for the long haul.
Firdaus Ali, a professor at the University of Indonesia’s Environmental Engineering Program, is the chairman of the Indonesia Water Institute.