Indonesian election campaigns get off to a limp start

By Max Lane

The official election campaigning period for the Indonesian national, provincial and district legislatures started on March 1 and will last until April 5. There is supposed to be a three-day period of non-campaigning immediately before the April 9 elections. Some 100,000 candidates from 44 parties are standing for seats in national, provincial and district legislatures.

Parties, or coalitions of parties, that win at least 112 seats in the 560-member national parliament or 25% of the popular vote may nominate candidates for the powerful presidency, to be elected in July. If no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote then, there will be a run-off in September.

Campaign rallies have been held by most of the more moneyed parties, but turnouts are low compared to previous elections. The largest rallies so far have been those in support of the Democratic Party (PD), headed by incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The PD is picking up support among the middle class and better-off workers, as a result of two decreases in fuel prices Yudhyono has brought in, following the international drop in oil prices in the second half of last year. Even if people think his government has done little to improve most people’s lives, polls also show that some voter support is flowing his way due to the sense of predictability associated with his government.

In some areas, rallies for Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) are reported to be about the same size, but they are not as widespread. Even in what is considered the PDIP’s strongest area, Bali, its rallies are reported to have been of similar size to those of the PD. While media reports and parties’ own claims sometimes give figures of up to 60,000 at a rally, local left-wing activists say that even PD rallies, with all the advantages of incumbency, rarely get above 20,000, even in Jakarta. They report that some rallies called by the smaller parties have had nobody other than party officials turn up to them. Some rallies in the last days of the campaign have been slightly larger, but the pull has been the line-up of pop singers and media celebrities and not the politicians, who make sure they limit their time on the stage.

Even an extremely well-funded and professionally slick media campaign by former general Prabowo Subianto’s newly formed Greater Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), has not resulted in rallies anywhere near as large as Yudhoyono’s. This is despite an all-out campaign by Gerindra to portray itself as being for Indonesia’s poor.

Of course, all of Indonesia’s pro-capitalist parties try to present themselves as being for the interests of the poor. This is because, as Lili Romli, a political analyst at the Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI), told the Inter-Press Service on March 31, most Indonesian voters are poor and “want a leader who will be able to deal with their daily problems, like food, education, affordable medication”. However, “Indonesian leaders understand that removing subsidies on basic items like food and fuel was not a pro-poor policy, but the past government”, with the support of the other elite parties in parliament, “did it anyway because the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank wanted it”.

Mood of abstention

The limp start of the election campaign reflects the strong mood toward abstention among voters. All the signs are that voter abstention — known as golput — will be high. The April 2 Jakarta Post reported that the General Elections Commission (KPU), the independent institution mandated by law to organise general and local elections, was worried there will be a low voter turnout in the national legislative election. According to a survey by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) in early March, only 13% of eligible voters said they were very likely to vote and 84% said they were only somewhat likely to vote. When asked about their political preference, 30% said they supported Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party, 18.8% backed the PDI-P and 15.2% supported the Golkar Party, the party of former dictator Suharto. Gerindra was predicted to win only 6.5%.

Prabowo, who is considered by most human rights organisations to be behind the 1997-98 disappearances and killings of student and People’s Democratic Party (PRD) activists, is waging an energetic campaign of nationalist demagogy through the mass media. His media advertising, financed by his billionaire brother, includes slogans such as “Indonesia can arise not just because of me, but if the nation believes in itself”. Other advertising slogans emphasise the need to “buy Indonesian” or to patronise local traditional markets. Increasingly Prabowo has been trying to project himself as another Sukarno — the left-leaning, anti-imperialist first president of Indonesia. This has had some success in attracting high-profile recruits to his new party. In January, for example, well-known mystic Permadi, quit his parliamentary seat and the PDIP to join Gerindra, stating that he had found the “second Sukarno”.

The scale of Prabowo’s advertising has clearly started to unnerve some of his rival elite politicians. Former president Abdurrahman Wahid declared support for Prabowo at a rally in Surabaya, where Wahid’s support base is strong. Then, after being strongly criticised by many of his liberal-democratic supporters, Wahid withdrew his support for Prabowo. However, the increasing profile of Prabowo has not resulted in any notable divisions within the elite, despite Prabowo’s activities threatening a revival of Suharto-era style politics. Prabowo is on record as saying that Suharto’s methods of rule were the most suitable to Indonesia.

On March 25, Prabowo indicated his interest in a coalition of what is being referred to in the Indonesian media as the “Suharto-era parties”: Golkar, the PDIP and the Islamic United Development Party (PPP). Other smaller parties have also been reported as flirting with Prabowo as a possible presidential or vice-presidential candidate. Last December, Zarnubi Bursah, chairperson of the Star Reformation Party (PBR), was quoted in the press as saying that the PBR felt it had the same mission and vision as Gerindra. During the first week of campaigning in March, local left activists reported that the PBR and Gerindra were campaigning together in the Sumatran city of Medan. On April 2, Megawati was also reported in the media as opening the door to a coalition with Prabowo’s Gerindra.

Coalition speculation

The discussion that continues to dominate the campaign of the elite parties above all others regards what coalitions will be formed after the election to support what combinations of presidential and vice-presidential candidates. Every possible combination is being discussed: the Yogyakarta sultan with Prabowo; Megawati with Prabowo; Yudhoyono with Islamic fundamentalist Hidayat Nur Wahid; current Vice-President Jusuf Kala with former Jakarta governor and retired general Sutiyoso (who has his own small party) — the list goes on and on.

One former high-profile politician, Amien Rais, indicated that he knew which way the popular sentiment was flowing when he recently made a speech saying that all the talk of coalitions was at the expense of any discussion of policies to solve the people’s problems. However, the lack of debate over policies among Indonesia’s political elite is because there is little that ideologically divides them. As the April 2 British Economist observed, “So thin is the ideological divide, for example, that the two main rival presidential candidates could be the incumbent and his deputy. Asked what Golkar stands for, Burhanuddin Napitupulu, a leading party strategist, seems flummoxed. ‘Prosperity and nationalism’, he eventually comes up with.”

Most of the left groups, including the Political Committee of the Poor-People’s Democratic Party (KPRM-PRD), the Indonesian Struggle Centre and the Working Peoples Union as well as the most active alliance of progressive unions, the Workers Challenge Alliance, advocate abstention by voters from the elections. On March 14, around 300 workers from the Jabotabek (Jakarta metropolitan area) Workers Struggle Federation and the Congress of Indonesian Trade Union Alliances demonstrated against the elections. They shouted: “The 2009 elections are not people’s elections” and “Overthrow the elite; the people will rule”. Participating in the rally were delegates from the Indonesian Transport Workers Struggle Union and the Workers Struggle Solidarity Group.

Similar actions have taken place in other cities in Java, Kalimantan and Sulawesi. Most of the left groups are active inside these organisations. Some had earlier formed groups that tried to register to participate in the elections but were blocked by the onerous provisions in laws passed by the current parliament. There are talks between the left groups about further actions before the April 9 elections as well as about possible joint actions on other issues after the elections. The KPRM-PRD and groups that it is working closely with are planning to hold coordinated protest actions in several cities just before election day.