Jakarta’s First Christian Governor, Fresh Out of Jail for ‘Blasphemy,’ Poised to Lead Indonesia’s New Capital

Jakarta's Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, arrives at a courtroom for his verdict and sentence in his blasphemy trial in Jakarta on May 9, 2017.
BAY ISMOYO/AFP via Getty Images

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has chosen Jakarta’s first Christian governor of Chinese descent, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, as a top candidate to oversee the construction of a new capital city in the majority-Muslim country, the Nikkei reported on Friday.

Purnama was the vice governor of Indonesia’s current capital, Jakarta, under Jokowi during his term as governor from 2012-2014. After Jokowi was elected president of Indonesia in 2014, Purnama succeeded him as governor of Jakarta.

Purnama, known in Indonesia by his nickname, Ahok, was tapped in March by the president as one of a handful of serious candidates to head the development of a new capital city, part of a $33 billion plan to reestablish Indonesia’s capital on the island of Borneo.

Situated on swampy land on the island of Java, the current capital, Jakarta, has been steadily sinking for years, with nearly half of the city now below sea level. This poses a serious problem for the world’s second-most populated urban area after Tokyo — home to over ten million people — and the president plans to solve the potential crisis by relocating the capital to higher ground. The project is also part of a larger effort by Indonesia to spread financial capital and political influence beyond urban hubs.

News that Ahok was “handpicked” by the president to lead the construction of the new capital has reenergized the politician’s prospects, which had been all but dashed just a few years ago after he was sentenced to prison on blasphemy charges in the world’s most populous majority-Muslim country.

In 2017, Ahok was campaigning for a second term as Jakarta’s governor, for which most observers considered him a shoo-in, when his aspirations were suddenly shattered. Accusations of blasphemy were hurled at Ahok, a devout Christian, by radical Muslims in the capital, who had staged a series of sectarian rallies to smear the politician and ruin his campaign, the Jakarta Post reports.

The radical Muslims cited remarks by Ahok that the Quran did not prohibit voting for non-Muslims for political office and that imams claiming this in the country were lying.

After successfully thwarting his reelection, the Muslim cohort then demanded Ahok be formally prosecuted for a speech the then-governor had made which it deemed blasphemous. Later that same year, Ahok was charged with blasphemy and sentenced to two years in prison. He served the sentence and was released in January 2019.

Since then, Ahok has quietly reestablished himself within Indonesian politics. In November 2019, he was appointed chairman of Southeast Asian oil and gas giant Pertamina, considered Indonesia’s single most important state-owned company.

As evidenced in March by Jokowi’s public backing of Ahok to lead the construction of Indonesia’s new capital, the former governor has retained the support of the country’s most influential players despite his political detour.

As the Nikkei reports, Ahok remains “wildly popular among his supporters” and boasts an “8.8 million-strong army of Twitter followers [that] far exceeds the 3.6 million followers of his successor as governor [of Jakarta], Anies Baswedan.” In February, Ahok defeated Jakarta’s current governor, Anies, in a public poll gauging the “handling [of] Jakarta’s various problems, including floods and traffic jams.”

“Jokowi trusts Ahok, particularly after he succeeded him [as Jakarta governor in 2014]. Ahok was able to execute Jokowi’s ideas and implement them,” Kunto Adi Wibowo, executive director of Jakarta pollster KedaiKOPI, told the Jakarta Post in March upon news that the president had selected Ahok as a candidate to lead the new capital city.

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