A presidential election is just around the corner, but an air pollution crisis, frequent flooding and other serious urban challenges have many Indonesians worried about the basics, Edward Aspinall writes.

Jakarta is in the grip of an air pollution crisis. For weeks, smog in the capital has been up there with the worst in the world.

President Joko Widodo — himself with a month-long hacking cough speculated to be caused by the pollution — called in ministers and told them to take action, without guidance on how to do so. Health experts warn that pollution, much of it caused by vehicles and factories, is claiming thousands of lives every year.

Jakarta’s air quality highlights the challenges facing an increasingly urbanised Indonesia. Australians thinking of Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia often conjure up images of rice fields, tropical rainforests and palm-fringed beaches, but the people of the region increasingly live in towns and cities.

Indonesia is no exception – around 57 per cent of the population of 278 million live in urban areas, and that share is growing rapidly. Some 30 million people inhabit the sprawling megalopolis of Jakarta and its surrounding districts.

An election for President Joko Widodo’s successor is approaching, but many Indonesians are focused on urban issues like infrastructure. Image: Novanta/Shutterstock.com

Air pollution is only one of the problems urban Indonesians face. Daily life can be a real chore for residents of Jakarta and other cities, with constant gridlock meaning it can take commuters hours to travel just a few kilometres. Walking is often equally challenging, with poor-quality or non-existent pavements meaning that pedestrians have to dodge motorbikes, cars and other vehicles.

Periodic flooding—much of it caused by deforestation and construction in water catchments – is another problem. Many of the towns that line the north coast of Java experience periodic inundation during king tides and Jakarta itself is sinking at an alarming rate.

 A huge amount of garbage produced daily by urban residents is burned or dumped in rivers and on mountainous open sites. Jakarta alone sends around 7,000 tonnes per day to the massive Bantargebang waste site. Providing clean potable water and effective sewerage systems is another massive challenge.

So, how is Indonesia’s political system responding?

One clue is in the background of President Widodo himself. He came to prominence not as a member of Indonesia’s traditional political elite, but by building a reputation as a can-do mayor of the town of Surakarta in Central Java, and then as governor of Jakarta.

He burnished his credentials by promising to improve service delivery and infrastructure, including by introducing a modern transportation system (complete with a subway) to Jakarta and cleaning up its waterways to reduce flooding.

Jokowi, as he is more commonly known, is not alone. Across the country, many of the nation’s highest-profile politicians are city mayors or former mayors. Many of them have achieved national prominence by their efforts to make their cities more liveable for residents and more attractive to visitors.

Typically, this means attention to the basics, like drainage, road paving and city parks. It can also involve major engineering challenges, such as building new public transport infrastructure or erecting sea walls, as well as trying to improve city bureaucracies and services to make them more responsive to citizens.

Take Surabaya, the capital of East Java province. This city, with a population of around three million (10 million if we include the surrounding urban sprawl) was once a byword for urban grime. Under a series of reforming mayors – most famously Tri Rismaharini, now the Minister for Social Affairs – the city has rebranded itself as “clean and green”, and residents and visitors alike praise the city’s new cleanliness, parks and open spaces.

Traffic congestion is a major challenge in urban Indonesia, especially in Jakarta. Photo: jakartatravel/stock.adobe.com

The city has built a massive waste to energy incinerator, developed a system of neighbourhood waste banks and environmental volunteers, rolled out new online reporting and complaints systems for citizens, and introduced e-budgeting and e-procurement processes that have been used as models around the country. No resident of Surabaya would deny that there is still plenty of room for improvement, but most agree that the city has made real strides.

Not every city or town is like this, though. Old patterns of patronage politics and corruption stand in the way of urban reform in many places. Well-connected elites and their business backers dine out on infrastructure and reclamation projects but do little to improve the lives of ordinary residents.

Inequality is also a major issue: many of the wealthiest urban residents live in privately-run gated communities, protected from the hard scrabble that plays out beyond their walls, and with little incentive to care about public facilities or support politicians who provide them. The new infrastructure projects often have the greatest impact on poor residents, especially those living in informal settlements along rivers, train lines and similar spaces targeted for urban renewal.

There is still plenty of drama on Indonesia’s national political stage – not least that surrounding looming elections and the fragile state of the country’s democracy. But for many Indonesians, the issues that matter most are more mundane: their daily commute, the quality of the air they breathe, whether they can get the potholes outside their houses fixed and if their neighbourhood will flood next time there’s heavy rain.

Arguably, it’s in wrestling with such seemingly trivial – but in fact very challenging – issues, that Indonesian democracy will face some of its toughest tests.

Professor Edward Aspinall is a convenor of the 40th ANU Indonesia Update 2023, which takes place in person and online on September 15-16.

This article was co-published with The Canberra Times.

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