The governor is question is Basuki Purnama, but like many Indonesians he’s better known by a nickname. His is Ahok. Ahok, is the poster boy of Indonesian reform and the media love him, especially the foreign press. Free education and healthcare for the poor, light rail projects where traffic creeps along at an average of 8km an hour in places, public works to address flooding in a city where it rains almost everyday make up a big part of his legacy.
Ahok is also an outsider; media love that. He’s a Christian and an ethnic Chinese, two minorities that regularly face discrimination in a country that is roughly 90% Muslim. Ahok’s been on the right side of history, even. His immediate predecessor was the popular President Joko Widodo, from whom he inherited the governorship when Widodo won the top job.
Finally, what seals the media’s love affair with Ahok it that he’s theatrically plain speaking. His public humiliation of corrupt or incompetent officials has been a delight for beleaguered Jakartans. Once, as part of a press scrum at City Hall Ahok waved off a question I had about something I’ve since forgotten by wheeling on me to exclaim: “I’m so busy I haven’t had time to take a piss!”
This penchant can get him in trouble. About 100,000 people took to Jakarta’s streets this month to protest a glib remark of his caught on video in which he suggests some religious leaders use the Quran to manipulate their followers. Police have since charged him with blasphemy – a crime here.
My tribe was eager to write off the protests as so much rabble rousing by paid protestors from villages outside the capital. This couldn’t spell trouble for Ahok, could it?
But then I ran into Makmur Djarat. Djarat runs a small shop in this cheek- by- jowl neighbourhood, where he was born 55 years ago. Djarat says he used to support Ahok but he will likely vote for an opponent at elections in February.
“Muslims are fighting for their country,” Djarat says, pleasantly. “They have a right to have their voice heard,” he says of the protestors whom he didn’t join.
Then there was Bagus Ismahil. The 60- year- old pensioner was mixing ant larvae and seeds for his prized songbirds when Rusma and I caught up with him.
“According to my religion I support the protests,” Ismahil says.
It’s not clear whether Ahok has lost either man’s vote permanently. In fact, in a story I wrote for the Business Times of Singapore I point out Ismahil reckons he may vote for Ahok on Election Day in February because his running mate is a Muslim.
In fact I found there’s a bigger story playing out. Both men and others I spoke with on that that day voice solidarity with the protests while acknowledging Ahok’s successes.
“We have to separate religion and politics,” Djarat says. This may be what Djarat thinks a foreigner may want to hear. But Indonesians are proud of their secular traditions. Many voters here are struggling with how to be a good Muslim and be a good Indonesian. Until now, that tussle wasn’t clear to me. Eyes open, I may have a better chance seeing the next punch before it lands.