Political comeback for Ahok? Not so soon

JAKARTA (The Straits Times): Ahok's release from prison on Thursday (Jan 24) was widely anticipated, with many hoping that the former Jakarta governor, whose real name is Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, will make a quick return to politics, amid the ongoing campaign for Indonesia's next president.

But his ardent supporters, who stuck by him while he was serving time following a conviction for blasphemy against Islam in April 2017, are set to be disappointed.

A comeback for the popular politician, it seems, remains far from his mind, at least for now.

On the cards for 52-year-old Basuki, depending on the source, is a possible foray into the oil business, hosting his own television talk show, hitting the global lecture circuit, and marrying his 21-year-old sweetheart, who was once his former wife's aide.

Indeed, it was his rumoured engagement to former policewoman Puput Nastiti Devi which dominated the headlines and social media in the first hours of his release, as some eagle-eyed netizens focused on what looked like matching rings on the couple's fingers.

The rumours are true, according to a district official, who said he had signed and prepared papers for their nuptials. All that is left, he added, was for them to set a date.

While his personal affairs are great as clickbait and tabloid fodder, it was not lost on many that his current plans post-prison seem to pale in comparison to the time when he was said to have made the shortlist to be President Joko Widodo's running mate at the upcoming election.

It was also anti-climatic for many who have been closely following his every move behind bars - particularly his musings in handwritten letters posted on Instagram and Facebook - hoping for a hint of how he plans to come out of jail fighting, possibly for Joko.

But observers and others familiar with Basuki believe that his decision to lay low is likely a move to avoid jeopardising the re-election of Joko, who he was deputy to at Bali Kota, or city hall, until the latter was elected president in 2014.

After all, Basuki, a Christian of Chinese descent, remains a big target for Islamic conservatives and the hardline groups that caused his political defeat at the 2017 gubernatorial election and his eventual conviction for insulting Islam.

"Islam and identity politics are still sensitive issues in the Presidential Election on April 17," Professor Leo Suryadinata, visiting senior fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, told The Straits Times.

"Ahok is quite wise not to mention any of his plans for politics, as it would be used against him or Jokowi," he added, using the President's popular moniker.

Veteran press freedom campaigner and Asia Journalism Fellow Eko Maryadi agrees, adding that there was a strong suspicion that detractors of Joko, who has been accused of not being "Muslim enough", were planning to use Basuki's release to stir up anti-Chinese sentiment ahead of the polls.

So, even though Basuki is still widely popular among moderate and young voters, he could also make things tough for Joko, who has been trying to draw the support of Muslim conservatives who make up a huge voter bloc in Indonesia.

"Ahok is like two sides of a coin, and he knows it, and he may be why Jokowi can't win a second term smoothly," added Eko. "That is why he will stay far away for now."

There is, however, another line of thinking that suggests a possible split between the two men over the President's choice of senior ulama Ma'ruf Amin as running mate.

Basuki will no doubt remember that Dr Ma'ruf was the key prosecution witness who sealed his fate during his blasphemy trial, but the extent of their alleged animosity remains unclear.

What is clear, however, is that Basuki is unlikely to stay out of the spotlight for long, and while he is expected to take some time to enjoy his newfound freedom and budding romance, a return to politics for him is almost inevitable.

One of the reasons why it was such a surprise that he is now downplaying any involvement in Indonesian politics was because he appeared to be making plans that hinted of a comeback, just prior to his release from prison.

These include a couple of letters he wrote from prison that called for his supporters not to abstain from voting, following rumours of their disappointment over Joko's pick of Dr Ma'ruf for his next vice-president.

Then there was also the "Panggil saya BTP" online movement, calling for his supporters to address him by his initials, instead of Ahok.

Although Basuki never said it himself, a post on Instagram by his sister Fifi, a day before his release, indicated that the three letters also mean "bersih, transparen, and professional", or clean, transparent and professional in English.

A new political slogan calling for a clean, transparent and professional government, perhaps?

Prof Suryadinata said Basuki's decision to jettison his Hakka nickname can be seen as a move to reinvent himself and emphasise his "Indonesian-ness", even as he contemplates a return to the now highly Islamicised political landscape.

"He has the stigma of a blasphemy charge," he added. "So perhaps, the new name BTP is a new beginning for him and that in itself, is also a political move." - The Straits Times/Asia News Network

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