Indonesia election 2024: who is Anies Baswedan, the ex-Jokowi aide allied with Muslim conservatives?
- The US-educated politician is among the favourites in the presidential race, along with Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo and Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto
- Anies is seeking to cut a moderate image but his history as a polarising, ‘very religious’ figure, and decision to align himself with conservatives, hasn’t helped the effort
Resty Woro Yuniar
Published: 12:15pm, 3 Feb, 2023
Anies Baswedan, who wants to be Indonesia’s next president, was governor of Jakarta for five years until 2022. File photo: AFP
Former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan looks set to forge ahead with his plan to run in Indonesia’s 2024 presidential election after pocketing an Islamist party’s support, an alliance that could invigorate his once-polarising image as the face of conservative Muslim groups.
Anies, a US-educated politician with a doctorate in political science, is viewed as the antithesis of the moderate President Joko Widodo. He has been consistently mentioned as one of the top three candidates in recent opinion polls, alongside the far more popular Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo, and Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto.
The Islamist Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) will announce its support for Anies on February 24, joining the Coalition for Change’s National Democratic Party (Nasdem) and the Democratic Party, which declared their backing in October and January, respectively.
“Anies has the electability that allows him to win. He also has characteristics, that is, on the one hand very religious, but also a nationalist figure,” PKS vice-chairman Sohibul Iman told reporters on Monday.
Having met the presidential threshold, Anies, 53, expressed his gratitude for the three-party coalition, saying on Twitter that he would “carry out this mandate as well as possible”.
An Islamist or nationalist?Few voters would be surprised that Anies allies himself with an Islamist party, as he has been seen as the face of identity politics since he won the hotly-contested election to be Jakarta governor in 2017. His rival then, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an Indonesian-Chinese Christian, was accused by Islam fundamentalists of blasphemy for citing a Koran verse during the campaign, and was subsequently jailed for two years.
Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population but also has millions of non-Muslims. In this secular democratic country, albeit one with very strong Islamic influences, Anies has not always been seen as a religious conservative, observers say. Before running for governor, he was considered a moderate and a modernist Muslim, according to Eve Warburton, director of the Indonesia Institute at Australian National University.
He was once Widodo’s close aide and served as his campaign spokesman in the 2014 election, when Widodo was first elected president.
Anies also served as minister of education and culture in Widodo’s first cabinet, but was replaced less than two years into the job after the president saw him as underperforming.
Anies has a family history connected to the political arena. His grandfather Abdurrahman Baswedan, a freedom fighter and diplomat, was posthumously awarded the title of National Hero in 2018 for his role in getting Egypt to recognise Indonesia’s independence, among the country’s first recognitions from the international community.
During Anies’ time as Jakarta governor, a post he held until 2022, he tried to emphasise his image as a pluralist leader. One of the ways he did this was by introducing Christmas carols in public spaces during the year-end holiday.
Anies Baswedan (front L, in white), a former aide to Indonesian President Joko Widodo (centre L). File photo: AFP
But some say that was not particularly effective. “Even after several years as governor of Jakarta, and even after he has tried very much not to be a polarising or divisive governor, I think he remains seen nationally as a figure who represents that kind of a more conservative Islam constituency. That image hasn’t faded,” Warburton said.
“If he wins, the question is what will he do for PKS and for his Islamist coalition, and the groups that form that coalition outside of the party system?
“There will be speculation about whether he will go easier on [Islam fundamentalist] groups like [banned] Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia or Islamic Defenders Front,” Warburton said. “So it will be interesting to see what he signals to these groups during the election.”
Following Nasdem’s declaration of support in October, Anies has travelled across the nation to meet supporters and potential voters, following Widodo’s famous informal style of communicating with constituents – a style known as blusukan – which saw him roll up his sleeves and wander around markets and rice fields.
In Anies’ case, however, the local media has called his chats with the public a political safari, and his visits have not always been well-received. His presence was resisted by some people in the city of Solo, Widodo’s home turf in Central Java, and the permit for a political event in Aceh was rejected by officials there.
“In many places, in many events we are cancelled, we were told that the place cannot be used, but it will suddenly be used for other matters later. We are used to things like this, and that means in the future we must be prepared, that [our] struggle will face potential challenges,” Anies told supporters in December.
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He has also been travelling overseas. In August, when still governor, he met Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo, and he had lunch with Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong – the nation’s expected future prime minister – in September. Last month Anies gave a lecture at Britain’s Oxford University and he is expected to meet Australian officials and business leaders in Canberra and Sydney next month.
“He wants to show that he is a moderate figure and can be accepted by all groups, not only in Indonesia but also abroad,” said Ujang Komarudin, a Jakarta-based political analyst with the University of Al-Azhar Indonesia.
“He also understands that being a president means that he needs to interact with other international figures to [increase] foreign investments.”
During a visit to Singapore, Anies criticised Widodo’s ambitious project of creating a new capital in the jungles of Borneo, which he said lacked public consultation. Policy-wise, Anies might be framing himself as an opposition to some of Widodo’s policies to garner voters’ support, Ujang said.
“It could be that he will not continue Jokowi’s programmes, like the new capital project. Anies is the antithesis of Jokowi, and previously, Jokowi was the antithesis of [his predecessor] Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono,” Ujang said, referring to Widodo’s popular nickname.
Backroom talksUjang projected that Anies’ coalition was not yet solid as both the Democratic and PKS parties were keen to nominate each of their leaders as Anies’ potential running mate.
The Democratic Party wants its leader Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, Susilo’s son, to run for the post, while PKS aims to nominate its vice-chairman Ahmad Heryawan, former West Java governor.
Another name the coalition needs to consider is Khofifah Indar Parawansa, a high-profile figure at Nahdlatul Ulama – Indonesia’s biggest moderate Islamic group – and the governor of East Java, Ujang said.
But Anies’ chances ultimately hinge on whether the ruling Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) nominates Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo or Puan Maharani, the daughter of the party’s chairwoman Megawati Sukarnoputri, Warburton said. The lack of decision in PDIP gives Anies an edge over Ganjar, for now, as Anies has more time to carry out political safaris as a candidate.
“The election is still a long way off, but Anies is already doing some rounds, although he’s having trouble getting permits for some of his political events,” she said. “But if we think about the fact that Ganjar remains in the lead in the polls, and he’s barely leaving Central Java, then that tells you something.”
Could Indonesian conservative Anies Baswedan be nation’s next president?
Anies is seeking to cut a moderate image but his history as a polarising, ‘very religious’ figure, and decision to align himself with conservatives, hasn’t helped the effort.