Ahok: Popular leader targeted by hardline anger

Basuki-Tjahaja-Purnama-AhokJAKARTA: Jakarta’s Christian governor, who was jailed for blasphemy Tuesday, won much praise for his efforts to clean up the traffic-choked megacity but his popularity could not save him from Islamic hardliners angered by his comments about the Quran.

With his outspoken, combative style and can-do attitude, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama cut an unusual figure among the political elite in Muslim-majority Indonesia, where politicians typically take a more gentle, persuasive approach.

But the tall, bespectacled politician, who was the city’s first non-Muslim governor for half a century and first ever ethnic Chinese leader, quickly overcame any doubts about his leadership as he took concrete steps to improve the city of 10 million.

The 50-year-old – known by his nickname Ahok – regularly railed against corruption in one of the world’s most graft-ridden countries and led sting operations to catch lazy bureaucrats, drawing praise from a public weary of the city’s inefficiencies.

The former deputy governor inherited the top job in 2014 after his predecessor Joko Widodo won the presidency.

On Purnama’s watch, roads were repaired, pavements improved, more parks started appearing in the city and its notoriously filthy rivers were cleaned up.

Some of his policies – particularly a drive to evict poor, riverside communities – caused anger, but many Jakartans said their lives had changed for the better since he took power.

Until the blasphemy controversy, he was favourite to win last month’s gubernatorial election in Jakarta.

‘Fearless leader’

Aleksius Jemadu, a political expert at Pelita Harapan University near Jakarta, praised Purnama for his “courageous attitude”.

“Ahok is a rare figure, he’s fearless. He appeared when the Indonesian people were thirsting for an honest leader,” he told AFP.

But it was never going to be easy for someone from a religious and ethnic minority to hang on to such a powerful position, particularly when he was not elected to it in the first place.

His aggressive, outspoken style, an advantage when taking on bungling officials, turned out to be a double-edged sword that contributed to his downfall.

In September last year, in a speech to a group of fisherman during early campaigning for the elections, he accused his opponents of using a Quranic verse to trick them into voting against him.

The comments were filmed and went viral online – providing ammunition for fringe hardline groups who had long railed against a non-Muslim leader ruling the capital and his political opponents who were keen to oust him from the job and embarrass his ally Widodo.

Despite his apologies and insistence that he only intended to attack his rivals, not the Quran itself, hundreds of thousands of conservative Muslims took to the streets of Jakarta in mass rallies last year, organised by hardliners and encouraged by his rivals.

Under intense public pressure, authorities put him on trial for blasphemy and his popularity slumped. He lost last month’s election to a Muslim challenger and Tuesday was jailed for two years for blasphemy, a shock decision after prosecutors recommended only probation.

Purnama was born into a well-off family on Belitung island in western Indonesia, and studied geology at university in Jakarta, before returning to his village and going into business.

His father urged him to use his talents to help those less fortunate than himself, and he entered local politics in 2004. He was elected to the national parliament in 2009, where he met Widodo.