The 2010 Medan Mayoral Election

Chong Wu Ling (University of Malaya)


This study examines how identity politics among local indigenous Muslim and local Chinese Indonesian voters impacted the 2010 mayoral election in Medan, Indonesia. This study argues that such identity politics is considerably shaped by the ethnic relations between the Chinese and indigenous Muslims in Medan as well as influenced by the strong ethnic identity among some local Chinese. In this hotly contested race between Sofyan Tan, the only ethnic Chinese mayoral candidate, and nine indigenous candidates, Tan unexpectedly defeated eight of his opponents in the first round of the election but was later lost in the second round mainly due to the lack of support among local indigenous Muslim and local Chinese voters, particularly those with a strong ethnic identity. Although Tan was a well-known social activist who had made significant contributions to helping the poor who were mostly indigenous Indonesians, he was still regarded as an alien minority by the indigenous majority. Some local Chinese also did not vote for him because he was deemed closer to the indigenous population than to the Chinese community. This shows that identity politics that is based on essentialist assumptions of race and religious background is alive among local indigenous Muslims and Chinese Indonesians and this has considerably impacted direct local elections in Medan. This study also argues that it is generally still not easy for Chinese Indonesians to make a significant breakthrough in direct local elections in constituencies where the ethnic relations between the Chinese and indigenous Indonesians are less harmonious.