Indonesia’s presidential race is not until July, but there is already one winner.
Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (鍾萬勰), better known by his Hakka nickname “Ahok,” has taken over as acting governor of the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.
He is the first ethnic Chinese to do so in a country that is 95 percent native Indonesian and has the world’s largest Muslim population.
A Christian, Ahok succeeds Joko Widodo — popularly known as Jokowi — who has stepped aside to run for the presidential election on July 9, which opinion polls suggest he will win. Ahok would automatically take over to complete Jokowi’s five-year term if he does win.
Indonesia’s Chinese make up only about 2 percent of the population of 240 million.
Resented for their wide control over trade and business and suspected of loyalty to China, Indonesians of Chinese descent have been deliberately kept out of the political and military hierarchy for most of the country’s almost 70 years of independence.
The resentment, which has burst into bloody riots in the past, appears to be on the wane, although it is 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... It’s not about the race or religion ... or some primordial idea of who should run [the country],” Ahok told reporters in an interview in his office last month.
Ahok has played the “bad cop” to Jokowi’s “good cop.”
In contrast to the typically soft-spoken Jokowi — who is Javanese — 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... 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 said.
Ahok, 48, has served as Jokowi’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 congestion and flooding.
“I personally don’t agree [with Ahok becoming governor] because he’s too temperamental,” Jakarta City Councilor Boy Bernardi Sadikin told media.
Sadikin is the son of a former Jakarta governor from the 1970s who many residents believe was the last popular and effective leader the city saw before Jokowi 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 near Sumatra, faced smear campaigns from rivals.
However, the occasionally blatantly racist attacks had little effect: Jakarta residents voted in the Jokowi-Ahok team with a 55 percent majority.
Indonesia, the world’s third-largest democracy, has a history of tensions that have at times boiled over into violent attacks specifically targeting ethnic Chinese or other minorities.
The country saw one of the most horrific attacks on the Chinese community in 1998, as Indonesia descended into political and economic chaos following the Asian financial crisis.