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Published: Sunday May 18, 2014 MYT 12:11:05 PM
Updated: Sunday May 18, 2014 MYT 12:11:59 PM

A first for Indonesia, ethnic Chinese leader takes charge in the capital

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia's presidential race isn't until July. But there's already one winner.

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known by his nickname "Ahok", has taken over as acting governor of the Indonesian capital Jakarta. He is the first ethnic Chinese to do so in a country that is 95 percent native Indonesian and has the world's largest Muslim population.

A Christian, Ahok succeeds Joko "Jokowi" Widodo who has stepped aside to run for the presidential election on July 9, which opinion polls suggest he will win. Ahok will automatically take over to complete Jokowi's five-year term if he does win.

Indonesia's Chinese make up only about 2 percent of the 240 million population.

Resented for their wide control over trade and business, and suspected of loyalty to China, Indonesian-Chinese have been deliberately kept out of the political and military hierarchy for most of the country's almost 70 years of independence.

The resentment, which has burst into bloody riots in the past, appears to be on the wane, although it's not over.

Even critics of Jakarta's acting governor complain mostly about what they see as his abrasive style of governance, not his background.

"People are voting for a track record today," Ahok told Reuters in an interview in his office in April. "It's not about the race or religion...or some primordial idea of who should run (the country)."

BAD COP

Ahok has been the bad cop to Jokowi's good cop. In contrast to the typically soft-spoken and Javanese Jokowi, Ahok has gained a reputation for being a tough guy not afraid to shake up the city's sleepy bureaucracy.

"The first thing we have to fix here is the bureaucracy...by testing and evaluating their performance," Ahok said.

"We say to them if they don't want to follow us, they can get out. Sometimes we have to kick them out. Of course they are angry but we don't care."

Ahok, 48, has served as Jokowi's right-hand man since winning the 2012 Jakarta gubernatorial election when the pair toppled the incumbent with their can-do, transparent ideas on fixing the many problems of the chaotic city, including chronic traffic and flooding.

"I personally don't agree (with Ahok becoming governor) because he's too temperamental," city councillor Boy Bernardi Sadikin told media.

Sadikin is the son of a former Jakarta governor from the 1970s, who many residents believe was the last popular and effective leader the city saw before Jokowi and Ahok.

Videos of Ahok losing his temper with inefficient bureaucrats have gone viral in Indonesia but the public has been largely supportive of the acting governor's no-nonsense style in a country bedevilled by corruption and bureaucratic inertia.

When running in the 2012 Jakarta election, Ahok, who is from the resource-rich Bangka-Belitung province, faced smear campaigns from rivals.

But the at times blatant racist attacks had little effect and Jakarta residents voted in the Jokowi-Ahok team with a 55 percent majority.

Indonesia, the world's third largest democracy, has a history of communal tensions that have at times boiled over into violent attacks specifically targeting the ethnic Chinese minority.

The country saw one of the most horrific attacks on the Chinese community in 1998 as Indonesia descended into political and economic chaos following the Asian financial crisis. Rampaging mobs targeted Chinese-owned businesses and in some cases killed and raped Chinese-Indonesians, forcing hundreds to flee the country.

Hardline Muslim groups, who last year protested the appointment of a Christian woman to a Jakarta district office, have also threatened to protest Ahok's rise to power.

But Ahok believes Indonesia is becoming more pluralist.

"The Jakarta election was a test and...we see more ethnic Chinese running for (public office) now," Ahok said. "One day soon Indonesia will be ready for a non-Muslim or ethnic Chinese leader, even president."

(Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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