The Year of Testing Democracy
Next month (April) the world’s third largest democracy and our nearest Asian neighbour goes to the polls. Duncan Graham reports from Malang, East Java:
It doesn’t look right.
There’s just 20 metres of posters when the banners and billboards previously stretched almost to the Bromo-Semeru Massif backdrop. They flutter along a small bridge over a trash-choked drain, and can be seen only from one lane of the four-way intersection.
Other travellers might be unaware elections in the world’s third largest democracy are just around the corner, though they’d be bumped up to date once they turned on TV.
Here the ads are more overpowering, though only three of the 19 free-to-air stations in my area are focussing seriously on the contest. Two of the three are owned by contenders.
In previous elections the streetscape was curtained and spanned by gaudy banners, the roads blocked by paid paramilitary-style motorcycle gangs roaring support for candidates.
This time local authorities are curbing excesses, though things may change when the campaign gets underway for the presidential election on 9 July. That’s the big one – the parliamentary seats are a sideshow.
Outsiders often assume religion drives Indonesian politics and society. Faith is a powerful force, but it runs far behind nationalism. Proof is in the ballot box.
The principal Islamic movement Partai Keadilan Sejahtera scored under eight per cent at the 2009 election. The name translates as justice and prosperity, but its elected members have since proved to be as sleazy and graft-ridden as the rest in a country ranked 114 on Transparency International’s corruption perception index. (Australia is in ninth place, NZ at the top.)
Politicians using Islamic props like the Ka’aba and headscarf just bump along the bottom when compared to those draped in the secular red and white national flag.
After proclaiming independence in 1945 Indonesians led by first president Soekarno fought a brutal four-year guerrilla war against the stubborn colonial Dutch. The revolutionaries’ success still stiffens spines.
Those who knew Soekarno (he was deposed in 1965, the ‘year of living dangerously’) recall a charismatic leader mesmerising millions with soaring oratory, but a flawed economist, toppled by the army that hated his dalliance with communism.
His vanquisher, General Soeharto maintained ruthless control of the nation through his army-backed Orde Baru (New Order) administration, till a popular uprising in 1998 when the economy crashed.
By getting into democracy first Indonesia has avoided the violent dissent now flaring in the Middle East.
Megawati Soekarnoputri, 67, Soekarno’s daughter by the third of his nine wives, apparently believes she’s destined to lead the nation of 240 million as head of the Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P).
The party came third in the 2009 legislative elections but the people, not the politicians, choose the president. In a largely policy-free campaign electors will back personalities they recognise.
The polls are clear; if Megawati stands she’ll lose. She was president between 2001 2004, but her term was a yawn and she was widely seen as a puppet of the military.
Since then she has been defeated twice by former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY). He’ll stand down this year as required by the constitution after ten years marked by economic stability and a growing middle class, but rising religious intolerance.
Indonesian elections are colourful events. Literally. Each party has its own hue. Voters poke a hole through a party symbol on the ballot paper. If no clear winner there’ll be run offs. Overall the system is fair.
Megawati dithers on who’ll carry the red bullhead flag of the PDI-P into the presidential ballot. She says she won’t decide till after the 560-seat People’s Representative Council results are clear.
Party pragmatists are urging her to anoint Joko Widodo, 52, the popular Mettalica-loving mayor of Jakarta with polls predicting he’d be a shoe-in for the top job.
Jokowi, as he’s known, represents a clean break from the military-dominated past. In a nation where voting is not compulsory (71 per cent turned out in 2009) only an exciting candidate is likely to stir the disillusioned young and an electorate fed up with money politics.
Indonesia is youth dominated. One third of the nation’s 187 million eligible voters are under 24, meaning few have any real knowledge of the repressive Soeharto era.
The press is now the freest and most robust in Asia, though Indonesians are not great readers and prefer electronic media for their information.
About 64 million people are wired, mainly through Facebook, meaning candidates who can’t relate to this demographic are handicapped. However most users live in the big cities, not the highly populated regions where folk are less tech-smart.
Twelve parties are eligible but only four have a chance. Apart from the PDI-P they are Golkar, Soeharto’s old outfit fronted by mining and media tycoon Aburizal Bakrie, SBY’s Democrats, now riven by industrial scale graft and no candidate of note, and the Great Indonesia Movement (Gerindra).
This is headed by former general Prabowo Subianto, 63, once Soeharto’s son-in-law and still on a US visa black list for his alleged involvement in human rights abuses.
Till now candidates have needed to be dollar mega-millionaires, own media outlets and have close links to the military to be taken seriously.
Jokowi, once a furniture exporter, meets none of these criteria. Paradoxically that rules him in to an electorate weary of the uniform sameness of the autocratic Soeharto-era elites awkwardly trying to fit into democracy dress.
Instead he wears casual plaid shirts and is prone to blusukan, taking walkabouts to hear the people’s gripes and check on the city’s infamously lax public servants’ work habits.
Jokowi has been governor of Jakarta only since October 2012. Southeast Asia’s most dysfunctional city is again suffering under the annual floods that have so far killed 23 and displaced 20,000.
A survey by Indonesia’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies shows Jokowi has such overwhelming support he’s likely to win on the first round. This despite no form in national politics, or skills in foreign affairs.
Endy Bayuni, senior editor with The Jakarta Post has no doubt this election is critical,
writing that ‘Indonesia’s oligarchs (are) trying to steal democracy from the people.
‘The election may mark the end of democracy and the beginning of an oligarchic political system commonly found throughout Asia. Or it could give Indonesia a new five-year lease to strengthen the democratic government and culture’.
(First published in On Line Opinion 13 March 2013. A day later it was announcede that Jokowi would be a presidential candidate)