On January 24, 2019, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, formerly known by his nickname Ahok, was released from prison. What happens to him will tell us much about Indonesia’s political future.

In 2017, while governor of Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, Ahok, an ethnic-Chinese Christian, was convicted of blasphemy after a doctored version of one of his speeches was posted on the internet. After massive demonstrations around his trial, he was sentenced to two years in prison. The trial and verdict created major divisions in the country.

As is common in Indonesia, he was given four months off his sentence for good behavior, and sought to make his release as low-key as possible. He declared that being in prison had taught him a little humility and patience, which he needed, and asked that there would be no rallies and that supporters would not gather to greet him upon his release. He left quietly through the back door.

He also said that he no longer wanted to be known as Ahok, and since Indonesians always have nicknames for their politicians, he wanted henceforth to be known by his initials “BTP.” His lawyer said that he would not seek a quick return to politics and might instead pursue avenues in business or the media, perhaps with overseas travel.

It appears that BTP wants to distance himself as much as possible from his past, to be able to say that he has paid his debt and that he can now make a new beginning. A new beginning could of course be a prelude to a different type of life. But it could also presage a return to politics.

Other events in Indonesia suggest that politics may not be too far away.

In 2017, Ma’aruf Amin was chairman of the semi-official Indonesian Ulama Council, and in that capacity accused BTP of blasphemy and called for him to be charged. He was also a key witness at the trial and stated that BTP was a blasphemer. The Council itself issued a fatwa saying that he had blasphemed. But now Ma’aruf is a vice presidential candidate in the April elections and running mate of presidential candidate Jokowi, the current president and BTP’s old friend and colleague.

Jokowi had selected Ma’aruf in order to shore up his own Islamic credentials and head off criticism from more conservative Muslim groups. But Ma’aruf also seems to be shifting himself. He now states that he regrets his previous trial testimony and actions, and says he is sorry that Ahok had been imprisoned.

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama - Megawati Soekarnoputri
Photo of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama and Megawati Soekarnoputri that BTP shared to congratulate her on her birthday on January 23, 2019. By basukibtp, via Instagram.

There are also political divisions among the activists who had pushed for Ahok’s imprisonment. Prabowo Subianto, Jokowi’s opponent in the presidential race, is generally seen a garnering most of the support from Islamist groups, but the Muslim Brotherhood-influenced Crescent Star Party (PBB), has now announced that it will support Jokowi/Ma’aruf. This has led to resignations and a split in the party, especially because of Jokowi’s association with BTP. One PBB cadre remarked that it would “help Jokowi and the party who supports the blasphemy convict.”

Then, on the very day he was released, BTP visited the home of Megawati Soekarnoputri, ostensibly to congratulate her on her very recent birthday on January 23. But Megawati is the head of the PDI-P, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, the largest political party in the country. She is also one of Indonesia’s most powerful politicians—some say the most powerful. There has been talk in recent weeks of BTP formally joining the PDI-P. Djarot Saiful Hidayat, head of the party’s Central Executive Board, had said, “If BTP joins a political party, he would choose PDIP.” BTP’s lawyer, Teguh Samudera, had earlier said that his client had in fact been asked to join PDI-P.

BTP has now said that he is willing to campaign for Jokowi and Ma’aruf in the presidential election and is even willing to share a campaign stage with the latter, his former accuser.

This does not sound like a man intent on leaving the political stage. Whether he can bounce back from a blasphemy conviction will tell us much about Indonesian politics.

Paul Marshall is Wilson Distinguished Professor of Religious Freedom at Baylor University and Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, Washington, DC, and a contributing editor of Providence.

Photo Credit: Screenshot of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (BTP, formerly Ahok) speaking on January 24, 2019, after his release from prison. By BTP, via YouTube.