The Invisibility of the Poor

Rita Padawangi

Fisherfolks of North Jakarta, with pressures of new developments present in the background. Source: Rita Padawangi, 2014

The over-attention to religious fundamentalism in Jakarta’s election coverage perpetuates the invisibility of the poor in the city.

Before voting in the second round of Jakarta’s election started, various national and international media as well as commentaries from local and international intellectuals had had much focus on the rise of Islamism in the nation’s capital as the eventual determinant of the result. The election was won by Anies Baswedan-Sandiaga Uno (Anies-Sandi), candidates backed by Gerindra and Partai Keadilan Sejahtera over the incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama-Djarot Saiful Hidayat (Ahok-Djarot), who were backed by ruling party Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan, the political party of President Joko Widodo.

After the election result was out, reactions varied but were still consistently noting religion as the main factor: in my social media news feed, many expressed worries of rising religious fundamentalism. Worries that Jakarta would spread the religious flavour of elections to other parts of the country. Furthermore, some lamented “the death of pluralism”, “primordialism”, and expressed disgust on Anies’ opportunistic manoeuvre to embrace the Islam Defenders Front and Prabowo Subianto of Gerindra, who was clearly not in the same camp as him in the 2014 presidential election.

There were also prominent intellectuals voicing concerns over other intellectuals and activists who supported Anies. The Wall Street Journal headline was “Hard-Line Islamism Gains Ground with Vote in Jakarta”; The Jakarta Post “Anies Rides Islamist Wave”. “Prejudice over pluralism” was in a commentary on The Conversation. The ethnic and religious minority status of incumbent Ahok as an Indonesian Chinese Christian was often pointed as the reason why he lost the election in spite of relatively high percentage of Jakartans being satisfied of his performance.

Anxieties over creeping religious fundamentalism into electoral politics are not baseless. Jakarta’s election was clearly marred by debates over religious blasphemy, several “defend Islam” mass rallies and a plethora of writings exchanged on social media on the threat toward religion. Some of these social media posts also brought up ethnic divisions. Controversies over anti-Chinese banner arose closer to the final voting day. Furthermore, the memories of past riots and killings that remained unresolved and unrecognized fuelled the fear of rising intolerance and persecutions.

Painting Jakarta election’s final result as simply evidence of rising Islamism, however, is an oversimplification. Not only this view is also largely incomplete, it also perpetuates the division. First, rather than Islamic fundamentalism, social segregation among ethnic groups and religious groups deserves more serious attention. Pre-election surveys had consistently cited religion as an explanatory factor of voting decision and the official voting data from KPU website also proved the segregation of votes among districts along religious and ethnic lines. Districts with Muslim population over 91% tended to vote for Anies-Sandi, while districts with Muslim population less than 83% tended to vote for Ahok-Djarot. The segregation is even starker when plotted on the graph, as observed in Katadata. Therefore, religion is a determinant, but religion in this case is not only Islam. There is also a need to unpack what “religion” means to them. For example, those who voted for Anies to defend Islam does not necessarily mean they are religious fundamentalists. They may or may not be.

Second, which is the focus of this article, is the voices of the poor in Jakarta that are consistently missing from the headlines, reports and dominant voices of intellectuals that zeroed in on religion in explaining the votes. Litbang Kompas’ exit poll reported that consistently about 60%-70% from the lower and middle class population were voting for Anies-Sandi, while almost 60% from the upper economic class voted for Ahok-Djarot. Exit poll from Indikator Politik Indonesia also showed that 52% from households earning less than Rp 2 million per month (less than USD 200) voted for Anies-Sandi, while PolMark exit poll (note: this consultant was hired by Anies-Sandi) showed that 60% of the voters earning less than 6 million per month (less than USD 600) voted for Anies-Sandi.

Ahok-Djarot also consistently lost ground in the rental flats for the poor, places which were supposedly one of their pride projects in the campaign as part of the effort to create an “orderly” Jakarta. This is also consistent with the fact that Ahok was officially the governor who evicted the most households in Jakarta, mainly from the poor population, over their two-year reign. One week before the voting day, Ahok finally admitted that the government could have paid more attention to the social side of things in the relocation process, but by that time the damage had been done. Ahok’s loss among the rental flat population has also been documented in the film “Epilog (Jakarta Unfair)” by WatchDoc, which was released on 20 April 2017.

Poster of documentary Epilog by Watchdoc.

Also made invisible by the domination of religion narratives in explaining Pilkada DKI was the effort by the urban poor to organize, advocate and mobilize. On 8 April 2017, Jaringan Rakyat Miskin Kota (Urban Poor Network)-Urban Poor Consortium signed a political contract with Anies to demand five points: 1) Spatial planning change to support kampung (organic urban settlements); 2) Legalization of kampung lands; 3) Affordable housing for the poor; 4) Business permits for street vendors; and 5) Assistance for profession conversion for pedicab (becak) drivers. These five points were directly against urban policies and interventions under Ahok, labelled as “the Eviction King” (Raja Gusur), who was alleged to be in cosy relationships with big developers, evicted pedicabs without consultation, forcefully relocated street vendors and deactivating a street vendor cooperative that resisted the relocation (Kompas, 2 December 2016).

Urban poor’s contract summary with Anies-Sandi

Ahok-Djarot also offered at least two political contracts earlier in their campaign, but did not sign it with urban poor counterparts, unlike when Jokowi signed his gubernatorial political contract in 2012.

Basuki-Djarot’s political contract

Ahok’s persistence in defending developer-driven reclamation project in Jakarta Bay had also painted a stark contrast with the coastal population, particularly the fisherfolk whose livelihoods were significantly affected by the project and who were generally in the urban poor category. One year before the election, one of the members of the local parliament was caught red-handed accepting bribe from Agung Podomoro Land, a developer with a subsidiary company Muara Wisesa Samudera that develops G islet in Jakarta Bay. By then, media polls indicated that half of Jakarta residents rejected reclamation. Coverage on the issue had subsided since then, especially after those involved in the corruption case were charged, but the plight of the fisherfolks continued. They were involved in lawsuits against the artificial islands. Although they had recently won the case at PTUN against islets F, I and K, their livelihoods were still in jeopardy. It did not help that during the final debate on 12 April Ahok promised to build “floating restaurant” in support of the fisherfolks’ economy, but still energetically defended land reclamation, which furthered his image from caring for the poor.

Fisherfolks of North Jakarta, with pressures of new developments present in the background. Source: Rita Padawangi, 2014

It is true that Ahok is not the only governor whose policies marginalize the poor. Jakarta’s urban poor resistance to governors perceived to be against the poor is also not new. The urban poor have been openly expressing their resistance to anti-poor policies particularly after the 1998 Reform, not only during Ahok’s reign. In the case of Ahok, unhappiness among the urban poor with urban interventions was clear in JRMK’s words:

“The urban poor fully realize that a governor’s election in DKI Jakarta will bring direct impact on their livelihoods. Therefore, there is no option for golput (‘white category’ = no voting). Rather, the election momentum this year can be used to punish Ahok who had broken his promise, by not voting for him and hence stopping further evictions. By not voting for Ahok, the urban poor will send a message to all politicians and candidates that the people take note of what they do while in office and will remember those in the voting booths. On one hand, punishing Ahok by not voting for him, will of course benefit Anies-Sandi. On the other hand, Anies-Sandi also intensively communicated with the people, experts and JRMK-UPC. Therefore, JRMK-UPC offers a political contract to Anies-Sandi so that the support is not “free” and will not only benefit one side… If Anies-Sandi break the contract, the urban poor will be able to sue them in court. This differentiates the current contract from the one that Jokowi-Ahok signed in 2012.” (JRMK-UPC Press Release, 14 April 2017)

It is important to note that the urban poor’s preference to vote for Anies-Sandi should not be generalized as voting for a religious fundamentalist. In fact, none of the elements in the political contract had religious tone. The ability of the urban poor in organizing and mobilizing 32 kampungs in Jakarta, street vendor groups and becak drivers to push for the political contract is a movement against social and spatial inequalities.

The mainstream narratives of religion-fuelled election in various popular publications have perpetually overlooked social inequality in Jakarta. Apologists would say that the Gini coefficient — a signifier of economic inequality — declined in Jakarta under Ahok’s leadership (0.43 in 2015 to 0.41 in 2016) but the ratio remains one of the highest in Indonesia. While Ahok has been widely celebrated in these narratives as a representation of pluralism and diversity — based on his ethnic and religious identity –, the urban poor who joined the JRMK-UPC contract saw him as a traitor. Ian Wilson’s piece in New Mandala on the election day echoed this concern, by criticizing the ignorance of Jakarta’s neoliberal urban redevelopment and infrastructural improvement in the name of diversity as “elite pluralism”, through which “pluralism” may serve to undermine social inequality. What is alarming, amidst the spreading fear of religious intolerance and fundamentalism, is the invisibility of the poor.

“I thought you were different” (Gue Kira Loe Beda), residents’ expression in Bukit Duri, in reference to Jokowi-Ahok’s gubernatorial campaign promise in 2012 to not evict them. (Source: Ciliwung Merdeka, 27 September 2016, the night before eviction)
I do not intend to belittle the threat of religious fundamentalism. Nor do I want to celebrate Anies’ victory as the victory of the poor, because electoral politics on its own would never heal the plight of the poor in Jakarta. However, it is necessary to point out that the persistent ignorance of urban poor marginalization in Jakarta in the discussions about the election would only perpetuate the invisibility of the poor.

Without seriously addressing social inequality on the ground, calls for pluralism would serve to make the poor more invisible. Addressing inequality also means more than distribution of cash and cards; rather, it is an acknowledgement that the poor exist in Jakarta and that the poor should have access to urban development decisions.

Celebrating the person who has broken the political contract with the poor as an emblem of pluralism indirectly justifies the impacts of development policies and interventions that often legitimize treating the poor as necessary sacrifices or collateral damage.