Jakarta Votes While Holding its Nose

A man scavenges through a polluted river in Jakarta, Indonesia. (Photo: Bay Ismoyo / AFP-Getty Images)

A visit to the fourth-largest urban area on Earth (with approximately 23 million inhabitants) may be hazardous to your health. Although there are no exact statistics to prove it and, in any case, one can hardly rely on official data, the city of Jakarta is rapidly collapsing. It is terribly polluted, but the local press stubbornly refrains from conducting any serious investigation that would analyze the amount of pollutants in the air. Visitors get often sick, unless they remain in fully-sheltered, luxury hotels equipped with air conditioners and air purifiers. Eventually most succumb to coughing spells, poisoned by the grayish substance hanging over the capital; a substance that can be, if one uses some imagination, still described as "air."

Many visitors also develop stomach ailments due to the appalling quality of Jakarta's water supply and food. Some simply collapse psychologically under the weight of the sheer ugliness of the place, where traffic jams are the main landmarks of the capital city and where one has to drive to the shopping malls in order to "take a walk." Almost nothing "public" has survived decades of the pro-business turbo-capitalism practiced in the Suharto and post-Suharto eras.

The city's first gubernatorial election took place on Aug. 8. Previously, the governor of Jakarta had been appointed by the president, or, as in 2002, by local legislature. Former deputy governor Fauzi Bowo, a life-long bureaucrat and "urban planning specialist" (as he likes to be described) backed by a medley of 19 mainstream political parties received around 58 percent of the votes, comfortably winning over Adang Daradjatun from the conservative Islamic Prosperous Justice Party (P.K.S.).

The governing abilities of the "urban specialist" Bowo are highly questionable. If anything, he and his outgoing boss, governor Sutiyoso, brought the capital city closer to collapse. Jakarta is dotted with modern skyscrapers alongside smelly, garbage-filled canals with muddy water — the only "playground" for hundreds of thousands of children.

According to some unofficial statistics (it seems that pollution is yet another "sensitive issue," with almost no reliable official data available), Jakarta is the third most polluted city in the world after Katmandu (Nepal) and New Delhi (India). This unflattering position is shared with the Chinese city of Chongqing.

According to an article titled "Cities of the Future" in online science and technology magazine RedOrbit: "The U.N. reports that the city's drinking water system is ineffective, leading 80 percent of Jakarta's inhabitants to use underground water, which has become steadily depleted. In low-lying North Jakarta, groundwater depletion has caused serious land subsidence, making the area more vulnerable to flooding and allowing seawater from the Java Sea to seep into the coastal aquifers. According to Suyono Dikun, deputy minister for Infrastructure at the National Development Planning Board, more than 100 million people in Indonesia are living without proper access to clean water."

None of this is surprising, as drinking water is privatized and run as pro-profit enterprise by French and British companies, "increasing prices and decreasing quality," according to The Economist magazine.

Deforestation, over-development and poor city planning has led to repeated, devastating floods. The most recent one, on Feb. 2, displaced more than 350,000 people, and destroyed more than 50 percent of Jakarta's dwellings, as approximately 70 to 75 percent of the city area was flooded with water up to 13 feet deep. Infrastructure damage and lost property amounted to almost $600 million. The great majority of the population has no insurance.

The city is choked by traffic jams. Specialists are warning that it is approaching permanent gridlock, unless there are some dramatic changes in the very near future. Jakarta has almost no public transportation system, considering its size. Sutiyoso's brainchild, the so-called "bus ways" (an idea adopted from much smaller cities in South America) never managed to fly. Buses are (ridiculously) equipped with only one door for loading and unloading passengers, and special ramps for disabled people never arrived. A one-way fare is going to climb to over $.50 in a country where the average monthly income is approximately $65 a month, and where more than half of the population lives on less than $2 a day.

There is almost no transparency and accountability in government. A much-advertised monorail system was supposed to have its first line opened this year. Some of the main avenues were blocked due to construction, causing traffic increases. Citizens were asked to be patient as the city government attempted to develop acutely needed transportation alternatives. But at some point, construction of the monorail simply stopped. Trees in the middle of the roads were already cut down; ugly concrete pillars had been driven into the earth, with metal bars sticking several yards high. No official explanation was given. There was no hotline to call, and no information about the funds that allegedly disappeared.

Once again, the government showed profound disregard for its own citizens. The local press, unfamiliar with anything even distantly resembling investigative journalism, decided not to ask uncomfortable questions — hardly a surprise in a country where the media is owned, without exception, by big business.

Instead of the monorail, outgoing governor Sutiyoso introduced a "water transportation service," probably in order to guarantee himself a place in the history of the city. Two pathetic little "public" boats navigate approximately one mile of polluted canal water, looking like miniscule icebreakers cutting through the endless rubbish. Service is available only for a few hours, on weekends — hardly a solution to almost permanent gridlock.

After being ruled for years by Sutiyoso, a former general, Jakarta truly resembles a mythical purgatory with its dark sky, endless chain of vehicles, and children begging and offering themselves at several major intersections. Some beggars have faces that are burned beyond recognition; others display what is left of their amputated hands and legs, for a fee. And, unlike in other Muslim countries that broadcast only calls for prayer, citizens of Jakarta are bombarded for at least six hours a day by prayers and religious recitations at unbearable volumes, like in the worst Orwellian nightmare.

There is almost nothing "public" left in the capital. Jakarta has only a handful of small parks, of which some are even charging an entrance fee. The city has almost no passable sidewalks. Jakarta seems to be fragmented, brutal and compassionless; commercialized to the extreme. No wonder: it was shaped after the 1965 military coup that killed between two and three million people, from those belonging to the leftist parties and movements to ethnic and religious minorities.

Military Connection

Indonesia is still governed to a large extent by the old military clique. The president, Susilo Banbang Yudhoyono, is a retired four-star general. Outgoing Jakarta governor Sutiyoso is also a member of the retired top army brass — a lieutenant general who served in the Indonesian military for three decades, and was involved in Indonesia's occupation of East Timor. It has been alleged that Sutiyoso was once a member of Team Susi, one of the military units that were involved in the savagely brutal advancement on Balibo, East Timor in 1975, when five foreign journalists were killed.

Not surprisingly, Bowo's deputy will be another military man, this time retired Major General Prijanto, described by the Jakarta Post as a "longtime army officer." He was deployed to East Timor as chief over the squad of air defense infantry for Operasi Seroja (Lotus Operation) in 1978.

Operasi Seroja began on Dec. 7, 1975. With American approval, Indonesian forces launched a massive air and sea invasion, utilizing almost entirely United States-supplied weapons and equipment. By mid February, around 60,000 men, women and children of tiny East Timor were dead. This operation, which lasted from 1975 to 1979, was aimed at curbing efforts from Fretilin, a movement comprised of indigenous Timorese who wanted to separate from Indonesia.

In the recent campaign for governor of Jakarta, the opposition candidate was also part of the military apparatus. Adang Daradjatun once served as the deputy national police chief; in the past, the police and the army were part of essentially the same organization.

Choice? What Choice?

Most of the citizens of Jakarta did not go to the polls to vote for the candidate of their choice, as there were none willing to address the grievances of the majority. They instead voted to prevent calamity, which for the most of them meant an Islamic party taking over the city's governance. Several areas of Java are now facing discriminatory restrictions imposed by Islamic Sharia Law. In theory, these bylaws are unconstitutional, but an extremely weak and indecisive local administration is unwilling or unable to confront the increasingly strong Islamist movements and organizations. Many citizens of Indonesia worry that secular essence of the State is in danger.

Primarily, the election campaign consisted of colorful pop music concerts and "stars" expressing support for one of two candidates. Eventually, both candidates appeared on television screens hugging the elderly, children and the poor. Neither of them offered any serious analyses of the devastating future Jakarta is facing. The media, always compliant, refrained from asking hard questions. As a result, only a handful of residents believe that the election will have a deep impact on their lives. Cynicism is growing, but the opposition is fragmented and weak, not surprising in a country where the military and religion play decisive roles.

In the meantime, rotting garbage contaminates poor neighborhoods and clogs canals. Corruption is so institutionalized that police do not investigate car theft or burglary, unless offered considerable sums of money in advance. "When one of our correspondents is robbed, we call the police and complain," said an editor from a national news magazine who didn't want to be identified. "They often apologize and bring the loot back in just a few hours. What does it mean? That police are working with the thieves. How can you fight corruption with such police force?"

Millions of uninsured and unprotected people are living in shacks. Even those surviving under the bridges in makeshift carton dwellings face extortion, as they are forced to pay "rent" to local thugs and "officials." Social services have already collapsed, and so has the infrastructure. Next to the luxury hotels, people eat in dirty stalls, often washing dishes with the water from open sewage.

If the situation doesn't change dramatically, citizens of Jakarta may be tempted to turn to conservative Islam, considering it the only force willing to "protect" them. However, in these latest elections they still opted for a "secular" candidate — the "city planner" and his deputy who had "proven himself" by bombing a helpless East Timorese civilian population more than 30 years ago.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Andre Vltchek.