“BEFORE there was flooding here. After Ahok became Jakarta governor, there’s no flooding,” a 40-something Chinese woman said in Indonesian to a local journalist on Wednesday in north Jakarta.
She and her Chinese friends had just voted in Jakarta’s gubernatorial election. They were waiting for the arrival of Ahok, the Hakka nickname of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the Jakarta governor.
Obviously, they were Ahok supporters. Just like most of the voters in Polling Station 54 in the rich enclave populated mostly by Indonesian Chinese in Pantai Mutiara, Pluit. Ahok was voting in Polling Station 54 as he lived 350m away.
At 9.41am, the Jakarta governor, his wife Veronica Tan and their son Nicholas – all dressed in Ahok’s trademark blue-and-red plaid shirt – arrived after walking from their home.
It was as if a rock star had arrived. The crowd and the media went into a frenzy trying to video and photograph the 50-year-old politician.
His walk home was like a scrum. The media was determined to interview him and voters were bent on getting a wefie with him.
“Ahok, Ahok, Ahok ... selfie. I came from Perth to vote,” shouted a Chinese woman in her 40s.
The governor signalled to the bodyguards encircling him to allow the woman her 15 seconds of fame.
The woman got the angle wrong. So Ahok took her smartphone, adjusted the angle and snapped.
I was at Polling Station 54 with Tempo magazine political writer Wayan Agus Purnomo who had been covering Ahok’s bid to win the gubernatorial race since campaigning started in September.
On the way to the polling station, Wayan told me, “Some politicians say Ahok can enter Jokowi’s bedroom.” (In other words, both leaders are very close.)
In 2014, Ahok, the deputy Jakarta governor, catapulted to governor when Joko Widodo, who held the post, became Indonesian president. He is the first non-Muslim to hold the Jakarta governor’s post in 50 years. Some 83% of the 9.7 million Jakarta voters are Muslims.
A few hours after polling stopped at 1pm, unofficial election counts showed Ahok leading by 42.87% of the votes with Anies Baswedan, a former education minister, getting 39.76%, and Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, the son of former Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, 17.37%.
Ahok now has to face Anies in a second round of voting in April, as he did not win more than 50% of the votes.
The day before, I asked Wayan what were Ahok’s chances in the elections.
Based on surveys, he said most people in Jakarta were satisfied with Ahok’s performance as governor (such as mitigating floods and facilitating infrastructure). But some of them want to change him as governor, he said.
They were mostly from radical, conservative Muslim groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and moderate Muslim groups such as Muhammadiyah.
“Why change Ahok as governor since he is doing so well?” I asked Wayan.
“The main factor is Surah Al-Maidah (in the Quran), which says that Muslims have to choose a leader who is of the same religion as them. And as a good Muslim, many will follow this even if they are satisfied with Ahok’s performance,” he said.
During Friday prayers, Muslims were repeatedly told that their faith prohibited them from electing a non-Muslim as a leader.
Ahok’s speech in September allegedly was blasphemous as he told voters that Muslims should not be misled into believing that they could not vote for a non-Muslim. It sparked anger among Muslims.
Ahok, according to Wayan, claimed that the blasphemy controversy had triggered the rise of radical Muslim organisations.
“For me, it indicates that Jakarta people have strong religiousness in their hearts. Those involved in the riots (to protest against Ahok’s speech) in Jakarta were not only from radical organisations but moderate and middle-class Muslims,” he said.
But Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch thinks religion was exploited during the campaign to be Jakarta governor.
“Anies’ camp used the Islamic card in their campaign, saying that Muslims should vote only for those who wear peci – it was a clear reference to Ahok who does not wear the Islamic hat,” he said.
“Yudhoyono, the father of candidate Agus, called Ma’ruf Amin, the chairman of the Indonesian Ulama Council, to persuade it to issue a statement against Ahok,” he said, adding that Yudhoyono confirmed making the call but denied asking MUI to issue a blasphemy statement.
Wayan said many people in Jakarta were still abangan (moderate).
Ahok, said Wayan, is a phenomenon in Indonesian politics.
“He’s Chinese and a Christian but majority of people in Jakarta and Indonesia like him as a leader,” said the journalist.
“But,” I asked, “if Ahok is that popular, wouldn’t he have won the Jakarta polls with a clear majority?”
“Maybe it is his character. He is from Sumatra and Sumatran people say what they think, not like Javanese who are careful with what they say,” he said.
Can Ahok win in the second round of voting?
“Conservative Muslims have problems with him unless the court finds him not guilty,” said Andreas.
Wayan said Ahok may have to fight against a collaboration between Agus and Anies, some of whose supporters share similar traits.
But Indonesian politics is complex.
For example, Agus’ father Yudhoyono is unlikely to support Ahok as he is in conflict with former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, who backs the governor. But Yudhoyono might not want to be in the same camp as Prabowo Subianto, the main backer of Anies.
Jakarta voters have to decide whether they want someone who can perform or someone who has the same religion as they.