Jakarta's ethnic Chinese acting Governor Ahok a national first

Ahok takes over as governor of the capital from Joko Widodo, who has stepped down to run for president in July's election

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 May, 2014, 1:23am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 May, 2014, 8:32am

Indonesia's presidential race isn't until July. But there's already one winner.

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known by his nickname "Ahok", has taken over as acting governor of the capital Jakarta. He is the first ethnic Chinese to do so in a country that is 95 per cent native Indonesian with the world's largest Muslim population.

A Christian, Ahok succeeds Joko Widodo, who has stepped aside to run in the presidential election on July 9, which opinion polls suggest he will win. Ahok will automatically take over to complete Widodo's five-year term if he does win.

Indonesia's Chinese make up only about 2 per cent of the 240 million population.

Historically resented for their wide control over trade and business, and suspected of loyalty to China, Indonesian-Chinese have been deliberately kept out of the political and military hierarchy for most of the country's 69 years of independence. The resentment, which has burst into bloody riots in the past, appears to be on the wane, although it's not over.

Even critics of Jakarta's acting governor complain mostly about what they see as his abrasive style of governance, not his background.

"People are voting for a track record today," Ahok said in April. "It's not about the race or religion … or some primordial idea of who should run" the country. Ahok has been the bad cop to Widodo's good cop. In contrast to the typically soft-spoken and Javanese Widodo, Ahok has gained a reputation for being a tough guy not afraid to shake up the city's sleepy bureaucracy.

"The first thing we have to fix here is the bureaucracy … by testing and evaluating their performance," Ahok said.

"We say to them if they don't want to follow us, they can get out. Sometimes we have to kick them out. Of course they are angry but we don't care."

Ahok, 48, has served as Widodo's right-hand man since winning the 2012 Jakarta gubernatorial election when the pair toppled the incumbent with their can-do, transparent ideas on fixing the many problems of the chaotic city, including chronic traffic and flooding.

"I personally don't agree" with Ahok becoming governor "because he's too temperamental," city councillor Boy Bernardi Sadikin told media.

Sadikin is the son of a former Jakarta governor from the 1970s, who many residents see as the city's last popular and effective leader before Widodo and Ahok.

Videos of Ahok losing his temper with inefficient bureaucrats have gone viral in Indonesia but the public has been largely supportive of the acting governor's no-nonsense style in a country bedeviled by corruption and bureaucratic inertia.

When running in the 2012 Jakarta election, Ahok, who is from the resource-rich Bangka-Belitung province, faced smear campaigns from rivals.

But the attacks, blatantly racist at times, had little effect and Jakarta residents voted in the Widodo-Ahok team with a 55 per cent majority.

Indonesia, the world's third-largest democracy, has a history of communal tensions that have at times boiled over into violent attacks specifically targeting the ethnic Chinese minority.

Rampaging mobs targeted the population with brutal violence in 1998, forcing hundreds of Chinese-Indonesians to flee.

Hardline Muslim groups, who last year protested the appointment of a Christian woman to a Jakarta district office, have threatened to protest Ahok's rise to power.

But Ahok believes Indonesia is becoming more pluralist.

"The Jakarta election was a test and … we see more ethnic Chinese running for [public office] now," Ahok said.