Indonesia’s presidential race isn’t until July. But there’s already one winner.
Basuki Tjahaja Purnama has taken over as acting governor of Jakarta, the first ethnic Chinese to do so.
A Christian, Basuki succeeds Joko Widodo who has stepped aside to run for the presidential election on July 9, which opinion polls suggest he will win. Basuki will automatically take over to complete Joko’s five-year term if he does win.
Indonesia’s Chinese make up only about 2 percent of the 240 million population.
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 almost 70 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,” Basuki told Reuters in an interview in his office in April. “It’s not about the race or religion…or some primordial idea of who should run [the country].”
Basuki has been the bad cop to Joko’s good cop. In contrast to the typically soft-spoken and Javanese Joko, Basuki 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,” Basuki 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.”
Basuki, 48, has served as Joko’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 Basuki becoming governor] because he’s too temperamental,” 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 Joko and Basuki.
Videos of Basuki 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, Basuki, who is from the resource-rich Bangka Belitung province, faced smear campaigns from rivals.
But the at times blatant racist attacks had little effect and Jakarta residents voted in favor of Joko and Basuki with a 55 percent 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.
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. Rampaging mobs targeted Chinese-owned businesses and in some cases killed and raped Chinese-Indonesians, forcing hundreds to flee the country.
Hardline Muslim groups, who last year protested the appointment of a Christian woman to a Jakarta district office, have also threatened to protest Basuki’s rise to power.
But Basuki believes Indonesia is becoming more pluralist.
“The Jakarta election was a test and…we see more ethnic Chinese running for [public office] now,” Basuki said. “One day soon Indonesia will be ready for a non-Muslim or ethnic Chinese leader, even president.”