The appointment of a caretaker governor for Jakarta might come across as a routine procedure. In the case of Heru Budi Hartono, however, his employment of a politically partisan approach throws up initial indications of the battle lines going into the 2024 presidential elections.
On 16 October 2022, Anies Baswedan’s five-year term as governor of Jakarta ended, just over two years before the next gubernatorial elections scheduled on 27 November 2024. Indonesia’s insistence on the simultaneous holding of all regional elections in November 2024, regardless of the actual end-dates of incumbents’ elected terms, means that interim leaders are filling the positions of governor, regent and mayor across the country.
By the end of 2022, there will be 101 interim regional leaders, including seven governors who will hold office for over half of the full five-year terms. In 2023, this will increase by a further 169 individuals. This situation is the outcome of legislation passed in 2016 which reset staggered regional elections to a single period. Proponents of the legislation argued this would reduce costs and logistics associated with holding elections as well as the risk of social conflict claimed to be elevated by election campaigning.
Caretaker administrations are common across democratic electoral systems, generally operating with delimited executive authority during short transitions. What is unique in the Indonesian case is the lengthy period that many interim leaders will serve, the centralised process by which they are appointed, and how they have the same authority as an elected leader, including the ability to fire or replace civil servants.
The Constitutional Court has issued broad guidelines for the appointment process, recommending that it be, in principle, “democratic”, transparent, and accountable. In practice, though, the Ministry of Home Affairs has controlled the process with little consultation with regional stakeholders. This has led to criticisms from legal experts of an over-centralisation of the selection process, and accusations from opposition politicians that Home Affairs Minister Tito Karnavian is using interim appointments to strategically shore up the government’s interests prior to the 2024 elections.
This has been challenged on constitutional grounds. In May 2022 the Urban Poor Network (Jaringan Rakyat Miskin Kota, or JRMK), which seeks to represent the interests of the lower income in urban areas, requested a Constitutional Court review of the 2016 Regional Representatives Election (Pilkada) law that is the basis for appointing interim regional leaders. Calling it a “coup d’etat by the central government against regional autonomy and democracy”, JRMK argued that government appointments of regional leaders violated citizens’ constitutional rights to the representation of their aspirations. The Court dismissed JRMK’s request. A report from the National Ombudsman, however, was damning. It found that the appointment process lacked transparency, did not involve a diversity of stakeholders , and was marred by serious maladministration.
Jakarta’s new interim Governor has been quick to make his mark, making some constituents concerned about his return to policies of the Ahok era and of the ‘weaponisation’ of interim leaders in the lead-up to the 2024 elections.
Anies is one of the top three contenders for the 2024 presidential race. His replacement as Jakarta governor is Heru Budi Hartono. Beginning his career in the city administration, he was elevated to Mayor of North Jakarta in 2013 by then Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo (Jokowi). Heru was instrumental in the 2013 eviction and relocation of poor residents in the Waduk Pluit lake district, the revitalisation of which was promoted as a signature policy success of Jokowi’s governorship.
Heru was the preferred choice as running mate for Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, nicknamed “Ahok”, in the 2017 governor elections. He was supplanted by the pick of the Indonesian Party of Struggle (PDI-P), Djarot Hidayat. Heru was then chosen to head the Presidential Secretariat under Jokowi, who is said to have directly handpicked Heru to be the present interim governor.
Initially, Heru suggested that he would be a caretaker governor and continue his predecessor’s development planning. It was not long, however, before Heru signalled a more politically partisan approach, and the role that may be played by government-appointed interim leaders head into the 2024 presidential elections.
With much media fanfare, on 18 October, his second day in office, Heru reinstated a physical “complaints desk” on the steps of Jakarta’s city hall. While seemingly innocuous, this had been one of a raft of attention-grabbing approaches of the Jokowi-Ahok gubernatorial administration. Functionally impractical, it was nevertheless strategically important in projecting an image of government efficiency and resolve, while cementing the idea that the governor himself directly managed city affairs. The Anies administration had removed the complaints desk, replacing it with an online complaints portal and smartphone application. This symbolic nod by Heru to the Jokowi-Ahok administration was not missed by its supporters.
More substantively, Heru announced a restarting of the “normalisation” of Jakarta’s waterways. “Normalisation” here refers to an approach towards flood mitigation involving expanding the width and depth of Jakarta’s rivers and tributaries, and replacing riverbanks with concrete retaining walls. It has entailed complex and expensive land acquisition, and the displacement and relocation of riverside communities.
The Ahok administration adopted a hostile approach to normalisation, rhetorically blaming Jakarta’s flooding woes on longstanding poor neighbourhoods and engaging in mass forced evictions. This galvanised urban poor groups such as JRMK, who brokered a political contract with candidate Anies that if he were elected in 2017, he would end forced evictions and provide affordable housing options for them. In the assessment of JRMK and other urban poor groups, Anies’s administration delivered on many of these campaign promises.
Ahok’s gubernatorial regulation in 2016, which allows for quick non-consultative expediting of evictions by the Jakarta government, still remained in place during Anies’ term. Anies made an annulment submission to the Ministry of Home Affairs in April 2022. Returning it due to a technicality, the Ministry did not respond to a revised submission until soon after Anies had left office, overriding the request. Heru has since said he will “reconsider” the need to modify or annul the regulation. If he leaves the regulation intact, short-notice evictions remain an option as part of normalisation approaches while removing it would commit him, and a future governor, to engaging in more protracted consultative approaches with impacted communities.
Returning to an aggressive Ahok-era approach would be politically risky for Heru and his political backers. The shift in his policy language and the rejection of the regulation annulment has generated significant anxiety among riverside communities yet garnered exuberant praise from supporters of Ahok and Jokowi.
This, along with other policy shifts, has prompted speculation Heru will weaponise his transitional role to undermine key legacies of the Anies administration, with the strategic consideration that Anies’ performance as Jakarta governor will likely be central to his 2024 presidential campaign. More concerningly, this case suggests that similar handpicked interim leaders may not operate in “caretaker mode” but something closer to campaign mode for those who installed him, despite having no mandate from the voting public to do so.
Ian Wilson is a Senior Lecturer in International Politics and Security Studies, Academic Chair of the Global Security Program and Co-Director of the Indo-Pacific Research Centre at Murdoch University, Western Australia.