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Tycoon backs opponent, looks to oust Ahok in Jakarta elections

Tuesday, April 18, 2017 - 09:54

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Indonesian tycoon Sandiaga Uno will find out on Wednesday if his bid to take down a key ally of President Joko Widodo proved successful.

[JAKARTA] Indonesian tycoon Sandiaga Uno will find out on Wednesday if his bid to take down a key ally of President Joko Widodo proved successful.

Mr Uno's quest started in 2015, when the investor received the blessing of former general Prabowo Subianto to run a campaign for Jakarta governor. Prabowo had recently lost the presidential vote to Widodo, known popularly as Jokowi, and sought to regroup by wounding him politically in Indonesia's capital.

That was no easy task. Incumbent Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, Jokowi's former deputy known as Ahok, had racked up accomplishments. Investors saw the 50-year-old as working in hand in hand with Jokowi to streamline the bureaucracy, tackle corruption and improve the city's infrastructure.

"Looking at Jakarta now, with a rock star governor, very Superman, what can I offer?" Mr Uno, 47, told Mr Prabowo, 65, back in 2015, recalling the conversation to a group of foreign reporters last week.

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Fast forward more than a year, and Mr Prabowo's camp is on the verge of victory. Mr Uno recruited Anies Baswedan to lead the ticket, and the pair are neck-and-neck with Ahok in polls heading into Wednesday's run-off vote. A win would boost Mr Prabowo as he weighs a run against Jokowi, 55, in 2019.

"The Jakarta governorship is widely seen as a litmus test for winning the presidency," said Sunny Yoon, an investment adviser from Gordian Knot Advisory. "At the end the day, it would be a vote of confidence for Prabowo's political gravitas and relevance as a contender for the presidency in 2019. On the flipside it would put President Jokowi on the defensive."

Mr Uno made his fortune with Saratoga Investama Sedaya Tbk, an investment holding company he co-founded almost 20 years ago in the wake of the Asian financial crisis. He said last week that he spent 80 billion rupiah (S$8.4 million) of his own money on the campaign.

The race got off to a rocky start. In late September, Mr Uno went to MR Prabowo's house to discuss their next move after plans to run with Agus Yudhoyono -- the son of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono -- fell through.

"I had to scramble," Mr Uno said in an interview at his home in Jakarta. With time running out, Mr Uno and Mr Prabowo held several meetings with Mr Baswedan, 47, a former education minister who was removed by Jokowi last year.

"We agreed at 4am in the morning," Mr Uno said. "Then we took Friday prayer together, and we leaked the news out." Mr Uno, who masterminded a strategy on the back of surveys and data from focus groups, said he had approached the election the same way he had his business career.

The pair were boosted soon afterward after Islamic groups accused Ahok, an ethnic Chinese Christian, of insulting Islam in a speech last year. He was later tried for blasphemy, and prosecutors are expected to recommend a sentence at a hearing the day after the election. A verdict may come next month.

Mr Baswedan drew fire in December after giving a speech to the Islamic Defenders Front, which led street protests against the governor. The controversy hurt Ahok enough to deny him 50 per cent of the vote in February, forcing a runoff with Mr Baswedan after he came in second over Yudhoyono.

"They are dog whistling," said Tobias Basuki, a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, referring to Mr Baswedan and Mr Uno. "They are playing the religion card, and quite explicitly at times." Both Mr Uno and Mr Baswedan have denied stoking religious tensions.

"For me it's not about race and religion," Mr Uno said. "For me it's about providing good jobs and quality education and making sure it's affordable for Jakarta, that the cost of living is within reach for average Jakarta people."

As tensions reached a boiling point in November, Mr Prabowo met Jokowi at the presidential palace. The rivals agreed to maintain the diversity of Indonesia, according to the Jakarta Post.

Lately, Mr Baswedan and Mr Uno have sought to reassure investors they are focused on working in cohesion with the central government. They've had kind words for the president, promising to join together to boost growth in South-east Asia's biggest economy.

"We will be working hand in hand," Mr Baswedan said in an interview Friday. "I've had experience working with the president and it was positive and we'll continue that positive relationship." Mr Uno added: "Our mandate is to support Jokowi and to secure Jokowi up until 2019." What happens then is unclear.

While Mr Prabowo hasn't ruled out a run in 2019, he doesn't want to talk about the presidential race "until the right time," Mr Uno said. Mr Prabowo's Gerindra party is a top Indonesia opposition party.

"This is not about Prabowo, this not about Jokowi, this is not about national politics," Mr Uno said.

Even so, with allies running Jakarta, Mr Prabowo will be able to thwart some of Jokowi's policies, particularly on infrastructure, according to Mr Basuki from CSIS.

"Prabowo still stands a good chance" in the 2019 election, he said. "So definitely there is going to be a lot of conflicts of interest if the capital is controlled by the opposition."

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