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Who is ‘Ahok’? Chess moves to watch in Indonesia’s Presidential Election

27 Jun Who is ‘Ahok’? Chess moves to watch in Indonesia’s Presidential Election

Amidst the increasingly heated presidential election campaign in Indonesia, one of the most carefully watched issues today will be the greater political role played by ethnic Chinese in the 2014 elections. This issue is personified by Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as ‘Ahok’, incumbent (Acting) Governor of Jakarta. Pertinently, his future as Governor of the capital of the world’s most populous Muslim country is inextricably linked with the outcome of the presidential election, to be held on 9 July.

Holding the most prominent role in political office among affluent Chinese Indonesians,[1] Basuki walks the path less trodden, when most prefer a low political profile while doing what they do best i.e. success in economics and finance. Their success translates into compelling figures: according to the 2010 population census, less than 2 per cent of Indonesians are ethnic Chinese. Yet, big businesses in Indonesia are almost always synonyms for large Chinese corporations. In the 1990s, surveys implied that ethnic Chinese control 70 per cent of Indonesia’s economy.[2] Intermittent government and military instigated anti-Chinese riots have kept the community’s political participation in check since 1965, thus separating the usually close alliance between money and power.[3] Chinese Indonesians have long been classified as Warga Negara Asing (foreign nationals). Only recently has the classification changed under a new nationality law. One implication is that this removes the final legal roadblock for Chinese Indonesians to qualify for presidential office.

Basuki experienced first-hand the ethnic riots of May 1998 in Pluit following the fall of the New Order government.[4] He then lost his mining business in the ensuing years. Instead of leaving the country like many, he entered politics in Belitung and succeeded as running mate of Jokowi in the gubernatorial election in Jakarta in 2012. His political party affiliation is Golkar from 2008-2012 and subsequently Gerindra. He frequently suffered racial taunts due to his purported “double-minority” status as a Chinese and a Christian. During the 2012 gubernatorial elections, ultra conservatives in Indonesia called him an “infidel”.[5]

According to Indonesia’s Constitution, an invariable outcome of Jokowi winning the presidency would be Basuki formally assuming Jakarta’s gubernatorial office. Islamic fundamentalist groups in Indonesia have vowed to prevent this outcome.[6] With Islamic parties performing better than expected in the legislative elections and finding themselves in the fortuitous position as dealers in coalitions,[7] it is plausible that anti-Ahok forces in Indonesia are gaining strength (especially in the provincial stronghold of Islamic parties in North Sumatra and Central and East Java).[8] Will their opposition eventually prevent Jokowi from becoming president so he remains Governor of Jakarta?

Some will say this doesn’t matter because Basuki’s political ascent is inevitable. If presidential candidate Prabowo wins the election, it would strengthen Gerindra, which incidentally, is also Basuki’s affiliated party.

Photo Credit: Basuki Tjahaja Purnama’s official Facebook page


[1] Other ethnic Chinese Indonesians in politics. “Chinese-Indonesian Candidates Aim for House Seats.” Home. N.p., 04 Apr. 2014. Web. 24 June 2014.

[2] A 1995 survey found ethnic Chinese controlled 73% of the publicly listed companies on the Jakarta Stock Exchange and 68% of the top 300 conglomerates. “Asia Times Online :: Happy to Be Chinese in Indonesia.” Asia Times Online :: Happy to Be Chinese in Indonesia. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 June 2014.

[3] “Be Rich, Stay Rich.” Inside Indonesia. Inside Indonesia – a Quarterly Magazine on Indonesia and Its People, Culture, Politics, Economy and Environment, n.d. Web. 24 June 2014.

[4] “In Indonesia, Ethnic Chinese See a New Future.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, n.d. Web. 24 June 2014.

[5] SARA is an acronym for Suku Agama Ras dan Antar-Golongan – Referring to the law enacted during the New Order government which veto on discussion of racial, ethnic, and religious issues (termed “SARA” issues) combined with pervasive administrative control from the center to maintain a veneer of national unity. Public discussion of any of these issues would be taboo during the New Order regime.

[6] “Basuki Tjahaja Purnama Becomes Indonesia’s First Ethnic Chinese Governor.” ChinaTopixcom RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 June 2014. and “Indonesia Elections, Jokowi, and Prabowo.” Lowy Institute for International Policy. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 June 2014.

[7] “Islamic Parties Win Big in Indonesia.” RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 June 2014.

[8] McLeod, Ross H., and Andrew J. MacIntyre. Indonesia: Democracy and the Promise of Good Governance. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2007. Print. Pg 51.