The Wadas unrest is damaging Ganjar’s presidential prospects
Kornelius Purba A senior editor at The Jakarta Post
The Jakarta Post
The refusal of 134 residents of Wadas village in Purworejo, Central Java, to give their land to the government, the police’s use of force to disperse their protests on Feb. 9 and the initial indifference of Governor Ganjar Pranowo to the unrest will damage Ganjar’s presidential prospects in 2024. The ghost of the forced eviction of the villagers will continue to haunt him, as the government will not likely bow to public pressure to reverse course. Ganjar’s predicament serves as a precious lesson to other presidential aspirants, such as Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto and Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, who may confront even more daunting challenges, including potential corruption allegations. It seems Ganjar remains unaware of how the Wadas riot could affect his political future because the incident did not claim lives and the villagers are, in fact, divided over the government’s use of their land to supply materials for a dam project. At a glance, it looks like a minor incident. But in Indonesia, what may at first be a pebble in your shoe can later turn into a rock hitting your head. In fact, in Javanese, wadas means rock. The clashes between the protesters and the police will attract nationwide attention for at least three reasons. First, Ganjar is one of the most promising potential successors to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. Ganjar enjoys major popular support, especially in Java, at least on social media. The Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) politician expects the ruling party to award him the ticket, but chairwoman Megawati Soekarnoputri has openly shown her preference for her daughter, House of Representatives Speaker Puan Maharani. Second, public distrust in the police is growing. It seems that the police have morphed into a super body that can create trouble for anyone for no reason. People are becoming more familiar with the police’s propensity to use force to settle problems. Prior to the Wadas violence, the police had been subject to public criticism for extortion, bribery and even alleged rape, which contradict the institution’s responsibility to protect. Third, the Wadas incident recalls the use of military oppression and intimidation to grab land for the construction of the Kedung Ombo dam, also in Central Java, in the 1980s. Thousands of villagers from the regencies of Grobogan, Sragen and Boyolali were forced to leave their villages with minimal — if any — compensation as a result of corruption. It was probably one of World Bank’s biggest scandals because the government borrowed US$156 million from the institution for the project. When then-president Soeharto inaugurated the dam on May 18, 1991, he condemned those who opposed the project, branded them as communists and threatened to punish anyone who tried to defy him. Although on a smaller scale than the Kedung Ombo incident, the Wadas unrest can be framed to discredit the government and raise questions about Ganjar’s fitness for the presidency. Ganjar’s brimming self-confidence and playfulness on social media are seen by many as a blunder. For a number of Javanese, such behavior verges on taboo. Unless Ganjar can launch large-scale public opinion campaigns with convincing evidence to win back the trust of the people, the game will be over for him, especially if the election were held today. Before the incident, Ganjar was leading opinion surveys, along with his potential rival Prabowo, although the figures hardly surpassed the 25 percent mark. Ganjar knows very well how to play the perfect gentleman on social media, and many Indonesians are awestruck by his self-presentation as a servant of the people on Facebook and Twitter. On Feb. 9, the governor reportedly received a number of WhatsApp messages asking for his help, as hundreds of anti-riot police officers arrived in Wadas to escort 10 National Land Agency (BPN) employees as they surveyed the land of the villagers who had accepted the terms of the eviction. Ganjar had designated Wadas village as the location of a new stone quarry to supply materials for the construction of the nearby Bener Dam in 2018. Many local farmers resisted the development plan only to get embroiled in quarrels with other villagers who supported the project. “There is nothing to worry about. The police presence is just to safeguard the land measurement,” the governor said hours before the police violently dispersed the protesting farmers. Dozens of villagers were arrested but were released without any charges on the next day following public outcry. Internet and cellular service were allegedly cut off or slowed down on that day How did the governor react to the violence and arrests? “First of all, I want to apologize to all people, especially the residents of Purworejo and the Wadas community, because during yesterday’s incident, there were probably people who felt uncomfortable,” the governor said at a press conference on Feb. 9. The farmers were intimidated and suffered from acts of violence, which surely goes beyond feeling “uncomfortable”. To be honest, I do not know how Ganjar can control the damage. But Ganjar’s contenders, such as Prabowo and Anies, will likely learn a lot from him. The presidential election is two years away, and Ganjar may have enough time to make amends for the mistake. Of course, he will find it difficult to fix it, and his rivals know very well how to exploit it.