It could've been the comeback story of the year. Djarot Saiful Hidayat, the ex-governor of Jakarta, had thrown his hat into the governor's race for North Sumatra, a province in the far northern tip of Indonesia that's home to 13.5 million people and Indonesia's fourth-largest city, Medan.
Instead, it ended in a crushing defeat for Djarot at the hands of his opponent Edy Rahmayadi, a military man with deep roots in Sumatra. Edy won the race with as much as 58.8 percent of the votes, according to unofficial quick count results. While it will take days for the official race to be decided, quick counts are widely seen as accurate enough to call an election in Indonesia.
Wednesday started out well enough for everyone at Djarot's home polling station of Madras Hulu, in the city of Medan. But by 3 p.m. the situation had taken a dramatic turn with Djarot trailing by nearly 20 points. Two hours later, Edy declared his victory in a televised press conference where he thanked God for his victory in the election.
"I'm so grateful that I won this election," Edy said in his speech. "We can celebrate it by praying together, no matter what your religion is. We don't have to throw a parade on the streets. We just won this race, so we shouldn't make trouble for others."
Edy kisses a baby on the campaign trail.
The outcome didn't always look so grim for Djarot. Going into the election, some early polls had predicted a win for the former Jakarta governor by at least two percentage points. It wasn't a huge margin, but it was enough for campaign officials at his local polling station to feel pretty positive at the start of the day. Djarot made easy work of Edy at that polling station, taking in 170 votes to Edy's meager 53. Voters who showed up to vote told VICE they chose Djarot because of his squaky clean image and track record as an effective leader in the Indonesian capital.
"I chose Djarot becuse he has a record of clean governance and has never been blacklisted," said Marlin September Naibaho, 61. "In North Sumatra we have been traumatized by the corruption of the previous governors,” she explained, in a reference to the province's two previous governors who were both jailed on corruption charges.
Another Djarot supporter, Linda Kaban, a 56-year-old dentist, told VICE "we miss a governor who isn't corrupt in North Sumatra."
Djarot, right, at a campaign rally.
The ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) was hoping to use this election to gain a foothold in North Sumatra, long the territory of the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), a member of the opposition coalition, on an anti-corruption ticket. But it was security and name recognition that motivated most voters at the polls instead.
Edy, a former general, was seen as a powerful leader thanks to his military credentials and the type of man needed in a province that suffers from some of the highest crime rates in Indonesia.
“He’s responsible and a clean leader," said Sugiono, a 26-year-old civil servant who voted for Edy. "There has never been any evidence of any wrongdoing in his previous record... And Djarot is like Jokowi. They can’t make any significant moves to make changes in Indonesia. They don’t have enough power."
Sugiono also doubted that Djarot was as clean as his reputation claimed. He explained that he had to wait months for a new government ID after the name rubbed off his. But Djarot, until this election a resident of Jakarta, was able to show up and get his almost immediately, he said. It was a sign for Sugiono that Djarot wasn't above using his stature to find shortcuts through Indonesia's sluggish bureaucracy.
“Djarot jumped to the front of the queue because of who he is,” Sugiono told VICE. “He doesn’t care about the people at the bottom in North Sumatra.”
In the end, voters also saw someone they recognized as one of their own in Edy. Djarot spent his entire political career in Java. He never even lived in North Sumatra before the race, and, in much of Indonesia, identity goes a long way in elections, said Kardina Karim Hamado, a lecturer in politics and international relations at Universitas Fajar.
“It’s too bad for North Sumatra, in general, but voters are still conservative,” she explained. “Their style of voting doesn’t change.”
Yunita, 18, told VICE she chose Edy for precisely this reason. "I would always pick a local candidate over someone not from the area,” she explained. “Edy is from here and he knows Medan well. Djarot is a Jakarta person.”
Observers told VICE they weren't surprised with the result. Ian Wilson, a lecturer in politics and security studies and a research fellow at the Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University, said that PDI-P party bosses might have overestimated Djarot's appeal outside of the capital.
“Being ‘flown in’ from Jakarta may have, ultimately, worked against him, despite the assumption of his party backers that his reputation from his period as deputy governor and then governor in Jakarta, would translate into winning levels of support,” Wilson told VICE.
“Not only is there probably a lot of dissatisfaction with the fly in candidates, but there is also an increased political value of ‘putera daerah’ discourse,” he said. "Putera daerah" translates loosely as a "son of the area" and is often invoked in Indonesian political campaigns to mean candidates from local areas who are pitched as best placed to serve local residents.
The North Sumatra election also highlights a political shift back toward nationalistic candidates occurring in Indonesia, explained Wilson. Joko Widodo's win in the 2014 presidential election was widely seen as a turn away from the military men and nationalist rhetoric that had won previous elections toward a future where voters were more concerned with progress and anti-corruption credentials.
But in the years that followed, candidates have shifted back to the old campaigns where strong hands and looming threats win at the ballot box. Prabowo Subianto, the rival candidate in the 2014 presidential race who has been tagged to run again next year, is currently using this same kind of rhetoric on his pre-election stump trail. It's a powerful motivator in Indonesia, and one that can overcome even a track record of corruption.
“Gerinda and PKS managed to maintain the critical North Sumatra governorship despite the fact that two previous governors from PKS were jailed due to corruption” said Ericssen Wen, a political journalist from the city of Pematangsiantar, in North Sumatra.
It remains to be seen if Djarot’s camp will appeal or ask for a recount at this stage. When VICE spoke to a member of Djarot’s campaign team, speaking on the condition of anonymity, they claimed that it was still too early to call the election and accused the quick count polls of being incorrect and manipulated by the media.
No senior members of PDI-P in North Sumatra could be reached for comment. As Edy gave a press conference on television to declare his victory, Djarot was filmed at the local PDI-P headquarters where he appeared to be hiding in an office.
This reticence in making an official statement may point to the reality that a shock defeat bodes badly for Djarot.
“It’s his second defeat in 14 months and may mark the end of his political career,” Ericssen explained, pointing to his loss in last year's Jakarta governor's race as well.
It also (potentially) doesn't bode well for Jokowi. The regional elections are widely seen as a litmus test of the national mood ahead of the presidential race. One key takeaway from today, aside from the fact that Djarot has blown his big chance to once again enter Indonesian politics, is that the opposition parties have gained a foothold across the nation, and potential presidential candidates like Prabowo have been bolstered as a result.
While unofficial counts show regional polls favoring Jokowi, Gerindra and PKS, performed much better than expected in not only North Sumatra, but also West and Central Java, Ericssen explained. When it comes to Djarot’s defeat, it seems that it’s less about Edy's personal victory, and more about the man behind him who is eyeing the presidency.
“Prabowo must be smiling now,” Ericssen said.