A handwritten letter from a prison cell is always a treasured document. A neat looking note from former Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama made the rounds this week on social media, days before his much anticipated release from prison on Thursday. He reiterated gratitude to his multitude of supporters, including those who have visited him at the National Police’s Mobile Brigade detention center in Depok, West Java.
On the expected big welcome outside the gates, he appealed there should be none to avoid further tension with “anti-Ahokers”. He left through the back gate with his son and headed home, reports said. In turning a new leaf in prison and his election defeat that, he wrote, saved him from being “more arrogant, ruder”, he also asked to be called “BTP”; those around him say he might enter business and accept several invitations inside and outside the country, though he has not ruled out politics. His personal life may continue to be under scrutiny, especially following his divorce while serving his two-year sentence for blasphemy and rumors of a new marriage.
Ahok has had other faults apart from his big mouth. As governor he was criticized mainly for evictions of the poor in favor of developers. But he retained popularity for his attempts to stamp out corruption within the resistant Jakarta bureaucracy.
The reason for Ahok’s popularity is, of course, the thirst of Indonesians for leaders perceived to be able to address chronic problems, particularly corruption and the bureaucracy’s abuse of power. The former deputy to then-Jakarta governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo was berated for not emulating his predecessors’ patient style of winning over those who disagreed with him. But others would say a firm and even outspoken leader was what the capital needed; even Jokowi had lost his temper a few times as governor.
Regardless of different personal styles, Indonesians have clearly welcomed anyone who has shown determination to make a change. Gone are the minor voices who said a woman should not be trusted to lead. Surabaya Mayor Tri Rismaharini, also known for her temper, is among the most popular leaders. The Chinese-Indonesians running for the national and local legislatures may have also drawn inspiration from Ahok, despite loud rallies that had appeared to increasingly discourage non-Muslims and Chinese-Indonesians from entering politics.
People are understandably impatient with all our decades-long problems. Yet, several local leaders have shown that once we shed authoritarianism and centralized power, doors open wide for new opportunities and new figures.
We have barely had one generation of democracy. We need to work on it to promote healthy competition for anyone to become a leader in many spheres of life. Yet, despite election fatigue, we cannot afford to turn back to temptations of letting strong figures lead the way.
The task remains to ensure healthy checks and balances, end corruption and invest in human resources, to ensure a constant crop of future leaders.