Life at the Center of the Storm: A Look Inside the Ahok Campaign

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Life at the Center of the Storm: A Look Inside the Ahok Campaign

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama's election campaign was rocked by charges that the outspoken governor had committed blasphemy by questioning an interpretation of the Quran. Arzia Tivany Wargadiredja was at the campaign headquarters in late November as the governor
December 3, 2016, 8:47am

The backyard of Rumah Lembang was a sea of red-and-white checkered shirts. It was one day after embattled Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama was questioned by police as part of an investigation into charges that the governor, a man popularly known as Ahok, had committed blasphemy. The crowd was packed tight against the stage, most of them sweating in the midday heat.

Clara Tampubulon, a member of Ahok campaign team, had to raise her voice to be heard over the crowd. "Excuse me ma'am, but unless I call your name, you're not allowed to come up to the stage," she said to a woman pushing closer. Earlier that day people were allowed to take a selfie with Ahok, but campaign staff had to put an end to the selfies because they were running out of time. It did little to stop the crowd from climbing on the stage.

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"Don't push," she said. "Please watch your step. There's only so much the stage can hold."

Ahok looked tired as he took the stage in his iconic red-and-white checkered shirt and black pants. He smiled and began to address to the crowd.

"I hope my words won't again be recorded out of context, or falsely transcribed," Ahok said. "I hope I won't be summoned [by the police] again."

Ahok is a man under fire. He stands accused of committing blasphemy when he questioned those who believe that the Quran bars Muslims from voting for a non-Muslim candidate in an election. The allegations triggered a series of protests that drew as many as a half million Indonesian Muslims to the streets on Friday to demand the governor's immediate arrest.

It was, in some regards, a backlash to Ahok's controversial evictions program—a plan to rid the city of "illegal" squatter communities that some blame for the annual floods. These slums, communities of low-income Muslim residents, had long resisted the governor's eviction plans. But they lacked a voice until hardline Islamists seized on the controversy, recasting the conversation in sectarian language and pushing the blasphemy allegations to the forefront of the conversation.

The governor now stands a chance of losing an election that six months ago looked like a sure thing. Ahok has slipped in recent polls, falling behind Agus Yudhoyono—a military man and son of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. He is now campaigning as the blasphemy case continues to progress toward an eventual trial. Few people have stood trial for blasphemy in the lower courts and walked away innocent, according to experts.

An anti-Ahok protest on Friday, December 2, 2016. Photo by Renaldo Gabriel

Those close to Ahok said that the protests, and the blasphemy charge, have left the once brash governor shaken. He has repeatedly apologized for offending Muslims with his statements. The blasphemy charge has become a talking point on Ahok's campaign trail. He brings it up often, each time reasserting his innocence.

"He's traumatized," confessed Bambang Waluyo Wahab, his campaign's vice manager.

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Bambang is one of the people constantly by the governor's side. He's there on stage at Rumah Lembang. He manages Ahok's calendar, a hectic schedule of blusukan campaign stops that, at times, had to be called short because of small protests. The two men have a deep history. Two decades ago, they became "brothers" when Andi Baso Amir "adopted" the two men. Andi was close friends with Ahok's family. He thought of the two men as his sons, Bambang said.

"Some people might think that he defamed a religion, but I can tell you this, that was never his intention," he said. "Our adoptive parents are Muslim. I am Muslim myself. We were raised with Islamic values and in a Muslim environment. He knows plenty about Islam."

Photo by author.

Bambang suddenly had to excuse himself. The one-story house was getting even more crowded with people, some who came to express their support, others to offer their complaints.

"I wanted to see Ahok in person so I took a number," said Suteja, a 70-year-old woman who complained that her neighborhood had a trash problem. "Mine is 355, but apparently it was for a photograph. I didn't come here to take a photo with him. I came here to file a report."

Rumah Lembang had an air of celebration. I could hear an Indonesian folk song coming from somewhere on the other side of the crowd. Many of the supporters were singing along, having fun as celebrities like Happy Salma, Cathy Sharon, and Lukman Sardi mingled with the crowd.

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The house is also where the campaign takes donations for the Ahok campaign. By the time I arrived, his supporters had already donated more than Rp 100 million. It was the biggest day of donations to date, his staff told me.

On stage, Ahok was the only one talking about the blasphemy charge. The rest of the people, a never-ending parade of public figures, regular folk, and campaign staff, showered the governor with compliments. But it did little to allay the concerns of Ahok, according to staff members I spoke with.

"He's very tired of the accusations," Bambang told me.

The campaign had prepared early on for attacks on Ahok's ethnicity and religion. They knew this was going to be a tough race, one where his identity, as both a Chinese Indonesian and as a Christian, would take center stage. Ahok's position as a "double minority—as a non-Muslim of Chinese descent is always used as a tool by his opponents," said campaign secretary Ace Hasan Syadzily.

But few expected the level of anger that has rocked this campaign. The debate over Ahok's career as governor of Jakarta has become laser-focused on the blasphemy charges, with few mentioning the governor's controversial history of slum evictions or the Jakarta Bay reclamation project. It's these allegations, that Ahok committed blasphemy, that have the most traction on the ground. Several TV news reporters hanging out at Rumah Lembang told me that the campaign was pushed out of six neighborhoods in recent weeks by angry protesters.

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This potential for anger—and bad press—has forced Ahok's campaign to change tactics. In 2012, President Joko Widodo, then a gubernatorial candidate, and Ahok spent much of the campaign in the streets in a series of blusukan meet-and-greets with local residents. But in the immediate wake of the blasphemy charges, Ahok was spending much of his time at Rumah Lembang while his vice governor and running mate Djarot Syaiful Hidayat campaigned in the street. According to Djarot's media division, between October 26 and November 30, Djarot went out on blusukan visits no less than 27 times.

But Ahok's campaign staff said that the candidate's recent disappearance from the streets had nothing to do with the reactions of city residents. Many of these smaller incidents were caused by outsiders—men and women bused in from outside the city and paid to create a scene, said Ahok's campaign secretary.

"There is clearly a presence of actors from outside the area who work to mobilize the masses," said Ace.

Photo by author.

Then, on November 23, the Ahok campaign decided it was time to hit the streets again. There were hundreds of police officers and soldiers standing guard in East Jakarta's Pulo Gadung neighborhood by the time Ahok arrived. He walked past the OMNI Hospital, past throngs of supporters who were eager to give the governor a warm welcome. Many of those in the street were members of Indonesia's Batak ethnic minority—a group that's predominately Christian and therefore unfazed by the blasphemy allegations. In Kayu Putih, supporters were eager to shake his hand. Many seemed like they were in awe of the man. The crowd was so thick that it took Ahok two hours to walk a distance of three hundreds meters.

Ahok kept walking. Soon we were in a housing complex, where an exhausted Ahok took a break beneath a mango tree in the front yard of someone's house. It was the longest walk journalists had ever seen Ahok make during one of these blusukan stops. "Usually he goes into an alley for about 100 meters," one of the journalists told me.

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The plan was to bring Ahok to battleground neighborhoods where he needed to win over voters who were leaning toward his competitors, Ace told me. Spending too much time among his supporters has "no additional value," Ace said. "Instead, we plan on visiting areas where Ahok has the lowest electability polls."

But Kayu Putih didn't look like a battleground neighborhood. Bobi Fernando, a resident of Kayu Putih, told me that the neighborhood has supported Ahok since the 2012 gubernatorial election. "We've been Ahok supporters all along," he said.

Photo by author.

Ahok told the crowd that he was exhausted. It was a tougher campaign stop than most, but, according to Ahok, it was important to get back out in city and meet the voters face-to-face.

"I told my staff that this one would definitely be more packed," Ahok said. The governor said he plans to spend more time on campaign stops like these, and less time in Rumah Lembang as the election season progressed toward the February 2017 vote. "When I see people shouting with such excitement, it's hard for me not to come meet them," he remarked.

It was a moment of calm in an otherwise tense campaign season. Ahok was back on the streets, surrounded by supporters who were eager to take selfies and shake his hand. It was the kind of reaction he was used to receiving back in the 2012 gubernatorial race, back before he became the capital's first Chinese Indonesian governor, before he was charged with committing blasphemy and the election took a turn toward sectarian and racially charged rhetoric.

But even there, amid all that support, Ahok's mind went back to the blasphemy charge.

"I believe if people watch it without prejudice, they will see I didn't intend to defame a religion," he said. "Not at all. And I too have apologized for all the misunderstandings. There's only so much I could do."