History was made in Jakarta last month. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, an Indonesian Christian of Chinese heritage, took over from his former running mate Joko Widodo to become governor of Indonesia’s capital, a teeming, Muslim-majority city of nearly 10 million people.
While most eyes are on Widodo and his ascension to the presidency, Ahok’s rise is arguably even more astounding, not least as it comes less than two decades after Jakarta was rocked by anti-Chinese riots.
Indeed, some believe this is not only an historic moment for Indonesia, but for the world as a whole. Candidates from religious minorities are rarely elected into positions of power.
“The fact that you now have an ethnic Chinese Christian in charge of the capital and most populous city in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country is quite historic,” said Tamir Sukkary, an expert on Islamic politics at Sacramento City College in California. “Many in the Muslim world will be watching Ahok. If he performs well, then it sends a powerful message of religious and ethnic acceptance and coexistence.”
Though the Chinese have been part of Indonesia’s diverse cultural tapestry for centuries, for much of the country’s history they were perceived as outsiders. Though Sukarno, Indonesia’s founding president, included Chinese politicians in his administration, the purges of the 1960s impacted on Chinese Indonesians in particular, as they were seen as being close to the banned and brutally repressed Indonesian Communist Party. Subsequently, under General Suharto’s nationalistic, strongman regime, Chinese culture, language and identity were repressed.
“The effect of these bans and purges on ethnic Chinese politics was traumatic and long-lasting,” said Jemma Purdey, an expert on contemporary Indonesian history and politics at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute in Australia. “Not only was an overt political role for ethnic Chinese out of the question, the ethnic identities of Chinese Indonesians were also eroded and erased, reinforced by discriminatory legislation banning Chinese symbols and cultural practice.”
These laws lasted until the 1997-98 economic crisis, which was followed by the fall of Suharto. During this period of turmoil, another wave of violence affected Chinese Indonesians. Back then reconciliation seemed far off, and few, if any, could have predicted that just 16 years later Jakarta would welcome a popular
Chinese Indonesian governor.
“Indonesia has come a long way since 1998 in terms of its political and democratisation process, though of course there are still many things that need to be changed and reformed,” said Yosef Djakababa, director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies in Jakarta, adding that tensions certainly still exist between Chinese and indigenous Indonesians. “For me, Ahok is phenomenal, not only because he is Chinese Indonesian and Christian, but he also came from outside Java. He is someone who embodied all the ‘wrong’ factors to become a leader in Indonesia.”
While Jokowi’s image portrays him as a man of the people, Ahok is a pragmatic man of action, known for his curt comments to the media and his disdain for wasting time. For a nation that has suffered decades of politicians spouting lofty ideals but delivering little progress for the man in the street, Ahok’s style is a refreshing change.
“Ahok is very popular not only in the Chinese community but also in the majority community, where many see him as a role model,” said Benny Setiono, founder and director of the Jakarta-based Indonesian Chinese Association.
Ahok’s job will not be easy. After years of mismanagement and unbridled growth, Jakarta is now a traffic-clogged, flood-prone city with crumbling infrastructure and an ever-growing population. His goals as governor include: keeping construction of the city’s long-awaited mass rapid transit system on schedule; dredging canals and creating better systems for flood resilience; and increasing economic opportunities for the city’s poor. Much of his agenda was initiated under Jokowi, but it is Ahok who must produce the results.
“Ahok’s role will be challenging, and if he can deliver what he promised and is accountable for his policies, I believe he will receive more support from the wider public, including from those who are probably still sceptical about his performance and intentions,” said Djakababa.
Others point to the small, but concrete, changes that have already taken place in Jakarta since Ahok and Widodo stepped into their leadership roles. “Standing in line at [a government] office waiting to get your [ID card] renewed is a little bit easier. Riding around in a Transjakarta Bus is a little bit comfier,” said B. Koja, an Ahok supporter. “Seeing Jokowi and Ahok chew out government employees because they disregard their duties is especially enjoyable. Hopefully, things will continue to improve.”
For some, it will not matter what Ahok does. They will oppose him solely due to his religion. While a few conservative Islamic groups oppose the incoming governor vehemently, they have yet to make much of an impact with wider society. However, in early October a protest by one group, the Front Pembela Islam (FPI), had to be dispersed with tear gas.
“Current opposition from extremist groups, including the FPI, to his instalment as governor appear to be aimed at agitating, but do not reflect wider public opinion,” said Purdey.
Didy, an Ahok supporter and a Muslim, believes that output, not religion, is what is important. “It is not right to not consider someone merely based on one’s ethnic or
religious background. Ahok’s leadership shows me that he can become a good governor.”
“Ahok has earned himself a reputation and high level of popularity based on his own abilities, plain speaking and no-nonsense work ethic,” said Purdey. “This appeals to Jakartans of all types and has boosted confidence among ethnic Chinese Indonesians, especially young people, to engage politically.”
Ahok’s success, like that of President Jokowi, is largely due to the new opportunities in Indonesia’s young democracy. Decentralisation, begun under President B.J. Habibie, gave more power to regional assemblies and district-level governments, while direct elections, passed in 2005 with the support of President Abdurrahman Wahid, allowed citizens across the archipelago to directly vote for their regional representatives and governors. This includes the positions that Widodo and Ahok won in an upset back in 2012.
Unfortunately, not every politician elected under this system was a populist. Vote-rigging and -buying led to the decentralisation of corruption and a greater national income disparity between the rich and poor.
Late in September, in a shocking move, the Indonesian parliament voted to rescind direct elections of regional positions. Though proponents portrayed this as a money-saving measure aimed at tackling corruption, opponents said it was a step backwards, placing more power in the hands of the old elite, and would undo the progress Indonesia has made since 1998.
Not surprisingly, Ahok strongly opposed the decision. He resigned from Gerindra, his party that had supported the bill, and issued a public statement that his position no longer aligned with that of his party. “Ahok simply no longer needs Gerindra,” said Purdey.
Ahok’s dramatic move added to the massive public pressure that forced outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to issue a government edict annulling the newly passed law, thereby restoring citizens’ right to directly elect leaders. Widodo, the incoming president, also opposed the measure.
Once again, Ahok was on the side of the majority, despite his minority background. As he steps into his new role, he opens the door for more of Indonesia’s minorities to play a bigger part in the country’s ever-evolving political systems. Southeast Asia and the Islamic world will be watching closely.