Monday, May 8, 2017

Election Day in Jakarta with CNN Indonesia

Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (left, in plaid) takes questions from journalists on February 15, 2017.
Samuel Howard | For Scripps IIJ
Often when I met someone new in Jakarta, the conversation would steer toward the inevitable: Donald Trump and the state of American politics.

Indonesians seemed genuinely curious. It’s an undeniably tense time in the United States and I tried to answer questions in the most forthcoming and detailed way possible.

It's only fair, because I had a first-hand glimpse into political tension in Jakarta — centering on the re-election bid of the city’s governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known by his nickname, Ahok.

When Jakartans went to vote on February 15, I went out with a team from CNN Indonesia to follow Ahok.

The election has more or less thrust the governor's position into international consciousness. In the days leading up to the election, USA Today, CNN and the Guardian all published "what's at stake" articles previewing Ahok's bid for re-election.

A brief primer: Ahok — a Christian Chinese-Indonesian — has been at the center of a criminal controversy since the end of last year surrounding blasphemy allegations, claiming he insulted Islam and the Quran during a stop in the islands near Jakarta last fall.

We kicked off election day at Ahok's polling place in a posh neighborhood of North Jakarta, near the harbor. I joked with some colleagues that at least half of election coverage is waiting around for something to happen.

That's as true in Indonesia as it is in the United States. We arrived around 6 a.m. Voting didn't start for another hour and Ahok didn't show for another three, or so.

The throng of reporters was predictably large and aggressive. Over the course of the day I saw reporters from international outlets including the BBC, Reuters, AFP and TV3 in Malaysia. I’m sure there were more.

Everyone wanted to get their shot and soundbyte. The former was probably no problem; Ahok obliged to about a minute of talk after he cast his ballot alongside his wife and son.

However, I doubt many reporters nabbed a worthwhile exclusive soundbyte. As soon as Ahok turned to head out for election day duties elsewhere, we all chased after him.

The situation illustrated Ahok’s status as a pseudo-celebrity in Jakarta: Guards threw up their arms to keep our distance, but that did very little. Voters at the polling station lingered around to take photos. Everyone was hounding the guy and his family. I waved a CNN mic toward Ahok’s face, but it probably didn't do a whole lot of good.

I squeezed out of the crowd and saw a CNN Indonesia anchor had also left. We shook hands and introduced ourselves, laughing. The absurdity of the situation transcended any language barrier.

Then, the usual: Everyone scrambled to get their live-shot in, file their stories, shoot some B-roll and head out to wherever the next assignment called. Our next job, and I suspect most of everyone else’s, was to get over to Ahok’s campaign headquarters for his appearance once initial polling results were tallied in mid-afternoon.

I noticed pretty quickly that the morning’s crazed, impromptu press gaggle was a warm-up to whatever would happen at the headquarters in the central Jakarta neighborhood of Menteng. I shuffled into a small backyard with the governor’s supporters, and hundreds more joined within an hour and a half.

Many sat in the yard and read booklets titled “A Man Called #Ahok.” Others took selfies with cardboard cutouts of Ahok and his running mate, Djarot Syaiful Hidayat. More stood with their eyes fixated on huge screens showing Metro TV’s election broadcast.

The crowd erupted every time the station played footage of Ahok. They danced. They pumped their fists. They broke into chants of “dua, dua, dua!” to note Ahok-Djarot’s status as the number 2 ticket.

This went on for a couple hours as early results trickled in. It had the feel of a rock concert. Andre Pullwanpo was right in the middle of it, crying out his support for Ahok.

I pulled aside the 64-year-old Jakarta resident and campaign volunteer. Pullwanpo rattled off a few reasons for his support of a governor that so many others find objectionable.

Ahok is an anti-corruption politician, Pullwanpo told me. He’s brave. He’s honest.

Nearby, 53-year-old Hari Melanthon was a bit more pragmatic. Melanthon said he finds it hard to walk the streets of Jakarta. Ahok has remedied that, Melanthon said.

By the time Ahok spoke around 3 p.m., there were few unobstructed views of the stage. Photographers and fans climbed scaffolding and a tree. Supporters grabbed pieces of scrap metal and scaled a barbed-wire wall to catch a glimpse of the governor’s short speech.

It was an intimate venue, but there must’ve been hundreds of people there. Ahok took the day — but with less than 50% of the vote, the election went to an April runoff after I left Jakarta.

Former education minister Anies Baswedan defeated Ahok in that final vote. Political and cultural observers have already begun to speculate about what that will mean for the future of Indonesia.

I don't pretend to know enough to make that call myself.

Given the relentless stock of journalists I encountered that day in February, though, I feel confident saying that the coverage of the governor's office is in good hands. And I hope the international media will continue to be part of that coverage.