Malaysia-Indonesia ties have been on a quiet, even keel for most of this year. Even the destruction of Malaysian fishing boats and the annual haze failed to ignite sparks between the two countries.

Much of that has been due to Indonesia’s preoccupation with domestic politics.

Last year, the republic passed Law Number 8/2015 regulating the conduct of gubernatorial elections for seven provinces, including the Special Capital Region of Jakarta on Feb 15 2017, as a step towards standardising regional elections in Indonesia. However, disproportionate nation-wide attention seems to have been focused only on the election in Jakarta.

Several factors account for this inflated interest.

First, the Jakarta election is especially popular because of the personalities involved. Three pairs of star-studded hopefuls have been officially registered to compete over the next four or five months. These are Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) and Djarot Saiful Hidayat (Djarot); Anies Baswedan (Anies) and Sandiaga Salahuddin Uno (Sandi Uno), and Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono (Agus) and Sylviana Murni (Sylvia).

Incumbent Ahok is known for his vocal and seemingly harsh demeanour, but has proven himself a highly effective leader and reformer.

Anies is the former minister of education and culture who has charmed the youth, as well as the religious and the educated communities, with his intellect and refined manner.

While Agus lacks experience in politics, he greatly benefits from his father’s (former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono) political backing, excellent track record in the army and intelligence.

The colourful characters of these individuals and their methods of communication will continue to draw public attention and prove instrumental in deciding the election’s outcome.

Second, Joko Widodo’s rapid ascent from governor of Jakarta to president of the republic has created hype and expectation of a similar political trajectory for the winner of the election.

The expectation of a parallel phenomenon is bolstered by preconceived ideas that each candidate has the political aim and chance to repeat Jokowi’s achievement, in the 2019 presidential election.

The public has jumped onto this story because it serves as a pseudo-prophecy of the country’s future, while forgetting that Jokowi’s case was an extraordinary one that is statistically unlikely to be repeated by anyone anytime soon.

Third, the election raises the issue of governance by a representative of the minority. The possibility of Ahok, Chinese by ethnicity and Protestant by religion, being elected as governor has piqued the interest of many Indonesians unaccustomed to having a member of the minority in Jakarta’s top seat.

Voters are increasingly fascinated by the election as they struggle with whether they should vote for someone with a different identity.

The above points should explain why the Jakarta election is such an enthralling force for the domestic audience, regardless of their political orientation. There are also a few reasons why this contest is worth the attention of observers from afar.

For one, the Jakarta election is a timely trial for the country’s young democratic system. The result will reveal whether citizens of Indonesia’s capital city have reconciled the concept of democracy and their basic identities, such as ethnicity and religion.

It will be interesting to see if Jakarta’s voters would repeat the earlier success of two other democracies, the US (with President Obama) and the UK (with London Mayor Sadiq Khan), to install a member of minority at the leadership level.

For this to happen, voters must rise above polarising rhetoric and demonstrate open-mindedness and tolerance.

The run-up to the election has also seen the proliferation of emotive discourse. Ahok’s candidacy alone has triggered a surge of conservative opinions that have gained traction among the elites and grassroots. While such response is only natural, some quarters have resorted to less responsible measures to oppose Ahok by spreading hate and violent messages among society.

It should be noted that such desperate measures flirt too closely with the agenda of radical and extremist groups in the region, such as Daesh, which have for so long crusaded for the extermination of minority communities. To stem this risk, the three pairs of candidates could help by campaigning ethically and propagating peace over vilification.

Lastly, this game of thrones is emerging as an arena of overlapping political interests involving multiple stakeholders, including political parties, members of parliament, the government of Jakarta, and to a certain extent, the office of the president.

As such, the election has the potential to distract these bureaucrats and politicians from more pressing issues at hand, especially if those issues, rightly or wrongly, figure lowly on the government agenda.

It would not be surprising, then, if the Indonesian government disfavours its agendas related to the South China Sea, Asean cooperation as well as the prevention of transnational haze over the politics of the Jakarta election in the months to come.

This article first appeared in New Straits Times on 19 October 2016.

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