In a first, Indonesia's capital gets an ethnic Chinese governor

Basuki Purnama, a businessman turned politician, is due to replace Joko Widodo, Indonesia's president-elect, as governor of Jakarta. He would be the highest profile ethnic Chinese official in Muslim-majority Indonesia, where ethnic Chinese have been targeted before.

Basuki Purnama, then-vice governor, talks to residents affected by floods during his visit to Jakarta on January 19, 2013. Purnama, better known locally as Ahok, is due to replace his boss, Gov. Joko Widodo who won last month’s presidential election.

Some 16 years after mobs razed Chinese homes across the city in a spasm of sectarian revenge, Indonesia’s capital is about to have its first ethnic Chinese governor.  

Vice Governor Basuki Purnama, better known locally as Ahok, is due to replace his boss, Gov. Joko Widodo who won last month’s presidential election. Elected on a joint ticket with Mr. Widodo in September 2012, Mr. Purnama's ascension is automatic once the legislature accepts the governor’s resignation.

Purnama's promotion reflects the steady improvement in the standing of ethnic Chinese, who have called Indonesia home for centuries and have been victims of periodic pogroms, often fueled by resentment at their relative wealth in a poor country. Under former dictator Suharto, Chinese language schools and books and festivals were banned; ethnic Chinese adopted Indonesian names and kept a low profile. In 1998, as Suharto's regime collapsed amid a financial meltdown, urban poor, watched over by security forces, turned on the city's Chinese as scapegoats. 

Purnama, who is also a Christian, calls himself a double minority in multi-ethnic Indonesia where the vast majority are Muslim. Chinese make up roughly 1 percent of the 250-million population. He says his promotion should help to make voters more tolerant of non-Muslin candidates. 

“It’s very important," he says in an interview at his office. He wore a white business shirt and tie rather than the drab brown uniform of local bureaucrats, and – far from being prickly on the topic – spoke enthusiastically about becoming the capital's first ethnic governor. 

Jakarta is a show case for Indonesia. It’s a good place to show that the most important characteristics for a politician is someone who is a good leader and will obey the constitution,” he says. 

Purnama grew up on a small island in the Java Sea, a 40-minute flight from Jakarta. An MBA-trained business executive, he was elected to a regional parliament in 2003, then ran the local government, before a successful run for the national parliament in 2009. That’s where he caught the attention of Prabowo Subianto, a former general and opposition politician. Mr. Subianto matched him with Widodo and agreed to back them as a joint ticket for the governorship in 2012. 

In a twist of fate, Subianto lost last month's election to Widodo. He has refused to concede, alleging electoral fraud, and filed an appeal to the Constitutional Court, which is due to rule tomorrow. 

Reforming city hall

Together Widodo and Purnama are credited with a flurry of reforms and new programs, including health care for the city’s uninsured, budgeting $3 billion in rapid transit projects, and relocating 6,000 riverbank squatters whose shacks exacerbate the city’s annual floods. These initiatives have polished Purnama's reputation as a no-nonsense politician who can rise above Jakarta's endemic graft and vice. 

Last month Purnama fired or forced into retirement 49 auto-safety inspectors whose station approved 749 vehicles a day, when a bona fide check takes half an hour. To curb kickbacks, he placed a $10,000 cap on private bank transactions for city workers in procurement, finance, and other departments. In May, while he was acting governor during Widodo's election campaign, he closed a notorious nightclub known to have police protection.

“I am the new Godfather,” he says. 

While his berating of slacker bureaucrats is popular with city residents, Purnama will need to watch his back, warns Kevin Evans, an independent political analyst in Jakarta. A dose of Widodo's charm may be the ticket.

“Screaming at bureaucrats can be good, but he needs to build a more balanced personality,” says Mr. Evans. “Ahok can’t always be thrashing and bashing.”

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