2017 Yearender: Leaders in the limelight

Ahok's serving time but staying strong

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama was defeated in the election for Jakarta's governorship in April - and was later jailed for blasphemy against Islam. But the straight-talking politician still features among the top picks as Mr Joko Widodo's running mate for th
Basuki Tjahaja Purnama was defeated in the election for Jakarta's governorship in April - and was later jailed for blasphemy against Islam. But the straight-talking politician still features among the top picks as Mr Joko Widodo's running mate for the 2019 presidential race in recent electability surveys.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known by his nickname Ahok, was poised to make history this year as the first elected governor of Indonesia's capital Jakarta who is not only Chinese, but also Christian.

But he suffered a defeat at the polls by former education minister Anies Baswedan in April, and was jailed for blasphemy against Islam a few weeks later.

Basuki's straight-talking manner and championing of pluralism that endeared him to many also saw his opponents turn that against him.

They leapt on a speech he made in September last year, when he referred to the Quran and told constituents not to be deceived by his opponents who say Muslims cannot elect a non-Muslim leader. Hardline groups like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) pounced on his words, and rallied hundreds of thousands of Muslims to take to the streets in protest. In May, a five-judge panel made a surprise decision to overrule the prosecution's recommendation of proceeding with a lower charge and putting him on probation. The court sentenced him to two years in jail. Critics panned the heavier-than-expected sentence, saying the court had bowed to pressure from hardline groups like the FPI.

The guilty verdict against Basuki continues to divide the capital, and his supporters would be eager to see him make a comeback.

The former governor - a post he inherited as deputy to Mr Joko Widodo, who was elected president in 2014 - remains a popular figure.

Basuki, 51, still features among the top picks as Mr Joko's running mate for the 2019 presidential race in recent electability surveys.

Foreign Policy magazine earlier this month listed him as one of its top 100 global thinkers, citing his standing up to Indonesia's creeping fundamentalism. "By losing his own freedom, Ahok just might encourage others to steer the country back to the middle ground," it said.

His rivals used religious identity politics and divisive tactics to gain power, and will likely continue to do so to remain in power - a worrying trend.

As for Basuki, besides reading and keeping fit, he spends his time in jail replying to letters from supporters. "He receives on average 20 letters a day," his lawyer I Wayan Sudirta said. Basuki is also working on a memoir. "There are lessons to be learnt from him," Mr Wayan added. "He's now stronger, closer to God and more convinced that this is a test from God he must overcome."

He is also eligible for remission after having served more than six months. This means 15 days could be taken off his term for the Christmas holidays, as he is Christian. And two more months could be shaved off, come Indonesia's Independence Day celebrations next Aug 17. Could he make a comeback?

"He does not want to think of a return to the world of politics just yet," said Mr Wayan.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 25, 2017, with the headline 'Ahok's serving time but staying strong'. Print Edition | Subscribe