Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok, will be the first ethnic Chinese to govern Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta.
Ahok is not the first ethnic Chinese to gain political prominence in Indonesia, where the Muslim-Javanese group dominates political positions. But he may be the first to break unspoken barriers of expected behaviours and norms of an ethnic Chinese participating in politics.
The outspoken and sometimes brash deputy governor will take over Jakarta’s helm when the incumbent Joko Widodo, the country’s president-elect better known as Jokowi, takes office in October.
Ahok is a distinctive figure in Indonesian politics. This is not simply due to his “double minority” status as Chinese Indonesian and Christian but also a result of how he regards or disregards those labels.
In Indonesia, ethnic Chinese were subjected to discriminatory laws during Suharto’s dictatorship. When Suharto fell from power in 1998, they were the targets of anti-Chinese riots.
Ahok never shied away from his ethnicity. In his campaigns and when dealing with political situations, he often mentions his Chinese heritage. He has told self-deprecating jokes by referring to himself as a pork-eating infidel. When he ran for governor of Bangka Belitung, an archipelagic province off Sumatra, his campaign material had a picture of him in full Mandarin outfit.
But Ahok does not use his ethnicity to gain popular support. While some Chinese Indonesians form part of his support, his base of voters has never been built on ethnicity or identity politics.
This is different from most Chinese Indonesians who climbed the “political track.” Elected leaders of Chinese ethnicity would typically be in charge in areas with a large Chinese population such as Singkawang, West Kalimantan.
There are exceptions. The recently elected mayor of the Central Java city of Malang, Mochamad Anton, is Chinese Indonesian. But Anton is a Muslim. His ethnicity is diluted by his religious identity.
Anton holds the prestigious title of haji. He is also part of the local Nahdlatul Ulama chapter, Indonesia’s biggest Islamic mass organisation. His appointment has not created much buzz due to these factors.
Some Chinese Indonesians gain political prominence by being appointed as ministers or to other bureaucratic posts. In such cases, the president or regional leaders appoint them mostly for their skills, usually in the fields of economics, finance and trade.
This is where Ahok is different from other prominent Chinese Indonesians. Ahok is not a technocrat. He has held political positions in areas where Chinese Indonesians are minorities.
Ahok started his political career in a region where his ethnicity is not political capital to run for local government. He first served as a councilor in Belitung Timur, in the Bangka-Belitung Islands made famous by “Laskar Pelangi” (“Rainbow Warriors”) author Andrea Hirata. He became district head of Belitung Timur in 2005.
After two years as district head, Ahok ran for Bangka-Belitung governor and lost in a close race. He continued his political progress by becoming a parliamentary member representing the region.
He rose to his current position by adamantly pursuing his political ambitions. When not endorsed by his party (Golkar) to run as governor of Jakarta in 2012, he ran as an independent before the Great Indonesia Movement (Gerindra) Party a recruited him. He then ran as deputy governor with Jokowi.
But does Ahok’s rise show a shift in Indonesia’s sociopolitical atmosphere in regard to identity politics? Do Indonesian people no longer care about their leaders’ ethnicity and religion?
Jakarta’s 2012 gubernatorial election and the nation’s July 2014 presidential election tell us a few things.
In both elections, Jokowi and Ahok (2012) and Jokowi (2014) had huge public support and enthusiasm behind them. And in both contests opponents used smear campaigns on religious and ethnic issues.
The smear campaign against Jokowi, who was accused of being a secret Christian of Chinese descent, almost worked. He lost his double-digit lead in opinion surveys just weeks before the election. Jokowi won, but with a close margin of 53 percent, against 46 percent for his rival.
Ethnicity and religion do have traction in elections, but they are not make-or-break factors. Religious identity in general is a more significant factor than ethnic identity.
Based on the results of a March 2014 CSIS national survey, it appears that Indonesia is not ready for people from minority groups to lead the nation. When asked if they objected to having an ethnic Chinese as president or vice-president, close to two-thirds of respondents said they did. The percentage rose to 71.7 percent when asked if they objected to having a non-Muslim president or vice-president.
But when we replace the conceptual question with real-case scenarios the results differ. The same survey presented several presidential pair scenarios. Interestingly, pairing Jokowi and Ahok as presidential and vice-presidential candidates did not diminish Jokowi’s electability.
It has often been overlooked that Chinese Indonesians are very heterogeneous socially and politically. Yet they are often treated and viewed as a monolithic group.
There is a variety of views in regard to the political participation of ethnic Chinese. Some are still cautious, traumatized by the 1998 riots. Others are quite enthusiastic about entering the political sphere.
The same varied views apply to Ahok. Some are proud and supportive of his accomplishments, while others are apprehensive. There are those who have reservations due to a fear that his brash demeanor may create a backlash against the Chinese, while a smaller minority are not supportive of him as he does not give special privileges.
Regardless of the changes in political dynamics nationally and among Chinese Indonesians, Ahok is pushing the nation forward. He is breaking barriers that had defined Indonesia’s socio-political environment. He has changed the game by having voters appraise politicians on their merits instead of ethnic and religious markers.
Yet Ahok is also an Indonesian politician who is unashamedly Chinese and Christian. He carries his background with pride, not for his identity but for Indonesia’s multicultural potential.
Tobias Basuki is a researcher at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta.