Last month, for one of his first official appearances on the campaign trail for the governorship of North Sumatra, Djarot Saiful Hidayat chose a relatively non-descript location: Sobat Cafe, a spacious restaurant selling standard Indonesian fare like nasi goreng and grilled fish. After lunching in a cramped back room with glass windows, Djarot took to his feet and addressed the small crowd of around 50 members of the local media and some supporters.
Gone was the red checkered shirt he wore during the campaign for the Jakarta gubernatorial election in 2017, replaced instead with a tasteful batik shirt—perhaps in a move to distance himself from his previous persona. Djarot started by regaling the crowd with tales of his life, from growing up in Magelang, Central Java, to moving to Malang and then to Surabaya to continue his studies.
“I’ve spent half my life moving around this country,” he said. “God chose that path for me and so I followed it. I am a son of Indonesia.”
The implication was clear: Djarot could serve in office anywhere.
“I became the governor of Jakarta,” he continued, without going into the messy background of how that happened. “And then it was time for me to take up my duties with PDI-P [the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle] in North Sumatra.”
Djarot’s political career started out strongly. After serving two terms as the mayor of Blitar, he then became deputy governor of Jakarta when Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or also known as Ahok, replaced Joko Widodo as governor in 2014. Djarot and Ahok then set their sights on re-election in their own right in 2017. It was at this point that Djarot’s political career began to descend into disaster.
As the incumbent candidates, Ahok and Djarot should have won easily, especially given the high approval rating they enjoyed at first. But in the face of a religiously charged race, the campaign crumbled and they were resoundingly defeated by Anies Baswedan and Sandiaga Uno. Ahok was then sent to two years in prison for blasphemy, leaving a glum Djarot to be sworn in as the 18th governor of Jakarta and limp through the final months of his term until Anies took over.
Now Djarot is a man in need of a second chance.
A few hours before Djarot arrived in Medan, North Sumatra’s capital, the air at the PDI-P headquarters was slightly tense. Jumiran Abdi, the deputy head of PDI-P North Sumatra, sat in his office on the second floor as visitors filed in and out preparing for Djarot’s arrival. The building was mainly silent except for a low hum of voices from the office, and staff members carrying trays of sweet tea and plates of spring rolls back and forth. After over an hour of meetings, Abdi emerged to discuss Djarot’s bid for the governorship.
In Indonesia, it's the political parties that decide where their candidates would be best suited to serve, and this means that they can run to govern a province that they have never lived in and have rarely visited, as is the case for Djarot in North Sumatra. As he is Javanese and has spent his political life in office in Java, he’s not the most obvious candidate to govern Indonesia’s fourth most populous province. North Sumatra is also one of the most ethnically mixed regions of the country, with large Batak, Chinese and Indian communities, many of whom are Christian.
“By running for governor of North Sumatra, Djarot is answering a call from his party,” Abdi said. “We view him as a solid candidate. He is not new to politics or government.”
Abdi was keen to suggest that there's no reason why voters wouldn’t choose Djarot as their governor. “We feel he can still be accepted here and he has been much praised for his work in the past,” he said.
He acknowledged that while Djarot is not from the region, he was doing all he could to familiarize himself with North Sumatra as quickly as possible.
“Once the election campaign gets properly underway he will be here full time,” he assured me.
Abdi’s optimism was impressive, but at the end of the day, Djarot is new to politics in North Sumatra. And this could be an issue according to Baiq Wardhani, a lecturer in politics and international relations at University of Airlangga in Surabaya.
“I don’t think people like Djarot are preferable in North Sumatra unless he has strong grassroots support,” Baiq said. “The only possibility of him winning is because he was Ahok’s deputy.”
Ian Wilson, a research fellow at the Asia Research Center at Murdoch University in Australia, agreed. He said that Djarot is likely to be relying on his political past to secure him the governorship in the upcoming regional elections in June.
“It’s safe to assume he is counting on his high profile and good reputation to see him through,” he said.
At Sobat Cafe, Djarot was far more charismatic than he was on the campaign trail during the gubernatorial election in Jakarta in 2017. Then, he often took a back seat to the more popular Ahok, and didn’t speak much during events including the televised debates. This time around, he came across almost like a favorite uncle figure—softly spoken but firm, friendly and enthusiastic. When he spoke about his accomplishments, he gave the impression of being a safe pair of hands. In a country where countless politicians have been dogged by scandal, from Ahok’s spectacular fall from grace and imprisonment, to House Speaker Setya Novanto’s arrest on corruption charges, Djarot seems wholesome and quietly capable by comparison.
But his speech that day showed several chinks in his campaign armor. He talked at length about his political career and early life, leading a photographer huddling in the press scrum to mutter, “We could have got this from Wikipedia” under his breath. But the reason why he did this was obvious: he is simply not that well known in North Sumatra. This was even more marked when his running mate Sihar Sitorus spoke to the crowd. As a Batak and a Christian, Sihar should appeal to local voters, but having born in Jakarta, he struggled to make a convincing link to North Sumatra.
“When I was at school we used to have to write an essay about our holidays. Every year mine was the same ‘I went back to Sumatra to visit opung,’” Sihar said, using the Batak word for grandfather to charm the local audience.
“We want to work together to build a better North Sumatra,” beamed Djarot, without elaborating, to wild applause. When the speech was over, Djarot toured the room, promising that everyone could take as many photographs as they wanted before he left. From Medan, Djarot hit the campaign trail in earnest, traveling to large cities in North Sumatra like Pematangsiantar. In the weeks that followed, he staged myriad photo opportunities in blusukan (impromptu visits) around North Sumatra—a hallmark of his election campaign with Ahok. He was even pictured getting a check-up at Adam Malik Hospital to assess his fitness to become governor.
Several days after Djarot spoke at Sobat Cafe, PDI-P held a meeting at Danau Toba Hotel in Medan, which was closed to the media. After the meeting, PDI-P member Hendry Jhon Hutagalung, spoke up about Djarot and Sihar’s bid for election in North Sumatra.
“Megawati [the head of PDI-P] has made it clear that all party members must make sure that Djarot and Sihar win,” he told Tribun Medan. “She has asked the party and the cadres to work [hard]. If they lose in this area then people will be fired.”
When it comes to PDI-P’s bid for the governorship of North Sumatra, everyone, it seems, is on their last chance.