MARCH 8 — Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama of Jakarta has one of the hardest jobs in Indonesia, and governing the city of over 13 million residents is just one part of it. The other part is surviving in a hostile environment surrounded by City Councillors who are determined to oust him from the start.

The governor, who moved up from deputy governor last year after then governor Joko Widodo was elected Indonesian President, had his biggest showdown yet with the City Council this week over the city budget.

The dispute centred on two drafts of the budget: one was the transparently drafted e-budget submitted by his administration, the other was proposed by the City Council that claimed it had not approved the government’s budget.

In the Council’s version of the budget, Rp 12.1 trillion (US$931.7 million or RM3.4 billion) of approved programmes had been changed to a number of questionable programmes and projects. Among the spending is Rp 126 billion for the procurement of uninterruptible power supplies for 21 schools, Rp 31 billion for production of a trilogy of books on the governor (which he claimed to have never commissioned), and tens of billions of rupiahs for projects that were never in the original e-budgeting.  None were also supposedly commissioned by any of the government offices or mayoralties.

Unhappy with the governor submitting his version of the budget, the City Council threatened to impeach the governor who is popularly known as Ahok. This is a process that will have to go through the Supreme Court.

In a meeting mediated by the Ministry of Home Affairs on Thursday, things turned rowdy after the governor openly confronted his subordinates asking if they had approved the programmes that appeared in the council’s version of the budget.

In a video uploaded on YouTube, the councillors interrupted and yelled at the governor before his question was answered by one of the mayors. One can hear racist abuse hurled at Ahok, the city’s first ethnic Chinese and non-Muslim governor in five decades.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (right) accompanied by Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (left) attends an inspection of a flood control project in Jakarta on February 18, 2015. — Picture by AFP /Cahyo Sasmito / Presidential Palace
Indonesian President Joko Widodo (right) accompanied by Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (left) attends an inspection of a flood control project in Jakarta on February 18, 2015. — Picture by AFP /Cahyo Sasmito / Presidential Palace

One of Ahok’s biggest detractors is City Council Deputy Speaker Abraham Lunggana of the Muslim-based United Development Party. He and other city councillors have criticised Ahok’s shoot-from-the-hip style of communicating as “arrogant” and thuggish. Ironically, on the video it was the legislators who looked more thuggish and threatening than the governor.

This is what happens when you rock the boat too hard in Indonesia. Under decentralised power, a regional leader is expected to be politicking as much as he is governing to rein in regional legislatures — or the City Council in Jakarta’s case.

New governors, regents or mayors always promise change and clean governance, but they hardly deliver because of the deeply-rooted culture of corruption among bureaucrats and legislators, particularly when it comes to budgeting.

Ahok’s no-nonsense communication style and his unbending leadership made him a force of disruption, threatening to end “business as usual” that has for many years fattened the bank accounts of bureaucrats and legislators, as well as their political parties.

Up until his time, there had not been an elected leader as uncompromising as he him. Even Jokowi, who was elected president on the strength of popular support, was known to have chosen less confrontational ways to engage his enemies or critics, which turns out to be his shortcoming as well, as events in the past two months have shown.

Ahok is fearless, even in the face of daily political and death threats.  After the councillors threatened to unseat him late last month, he reported them for a suspicion of budget inflation to the Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK). This led to the councillors scrambling to vilify him with a hotchpotch of accusations, one of which is that he tried to bribe them to accept the e-budget.

The effort to gang up on Ahok would have been laughable, had he not really been vulnerable.

Ahok is pretty much alone politically. He left his own party, Gerindra, last year after refusing to appoint their cadre Muhammad Taufik as his deputy. This is a man deeply tainted by a corruption case a few years ago and who is now the Jakarta City Council Speaker.

Moreover, the momentum for change that Indonesians longed for when Jokowi was appointed last year seems to have stalled, and the president is losing his edge as well as public trust in his fight against corruption after he failed to resolve the conflict between the embattled KPK and the National Police.

Left without strong political backing in a hostile territory and being a racial and religious minority, the only reliable support he has is the public who admires him for his integrity and defiance and sees him as the country’s last hope for change.  And with public disappointment with the president high, Ahok seems to be, as one political blogger says, “the last man standing.”

To win back public support, the Jokowi government cannot afford not to side with him in this case. The Home Affairs Ministry already indicated it would only evaluate the governor’s version of the budget. However, any revision would have to be deliberated by both the administration and the City Council, which will delay the budget process even longer.

Some have suggested that Ahok should improve his way of communicating to reach a compromise with the councillors. While that merits trying, it’s hard to envision anything he does would please a pack of legislators who are too eager to see the back of him.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.