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The year of voting fearfully. Indonesia to elect a new president

by Duncan Graham | Feb 8, 2024 | Comment & Analysis, Latest Posts

It’s a big year for elections worldwide, with some four billion people picking leaders in the US, India and 70 others. Among the first is Indonesia next week, with over 200 million voters electing 20,614 representatives at three levels of government. Duncan Graham is there.

The most important, of course, is electing a new president. With less than a week before February 14, exhaustion is obvious, and frustration rises after the fifth and final TV debate on Sunday. It was long on rhetoric, brief on implementation, and negligible on costings. Much was incontestable, like support for the disabled and better maternal care.

On Valentine’s Day, Indonesians are set to select who’ll run the world’s third-largest democracy from a field of three candidates and their sidekicks. Our deeply religious neighbour is technically secular but has more Muslims than any other nation.

So far, there’s been no reported violence. This could change if the hoaxes take root and hate grows.

Indonesians like to think they control their emotions. Not always. In 1965 an army-organised genocide took half a million lives. Riots in 1974, ’84, ’94 and ’99 killed thousands. The English word ‘amok’ comes from the region.

Cashiered former general Prabowo Subianto, a hard-right, my-destiny candidate and the man most likely to light the fuse if he loses, said earlier:

Indonesians can very quickly turn to violence. (It’s) something we would like to address, to control, and to manage. But it is there: fighting between families … villages …tribes …ethnic groups, and finally fighting between religions.

The ring of fire isn’t confined to volcanic eruptions.

Who are the voters?

Academic research estimates that 60 per cent of the 204 million eligible voters are in the 17–39 age demographic.

The campaign has revealed separate sets of millennials and Gen Zs. The thoughtful ones are real but invisible to the politicians who want their votes, though not their questions.

The other mob is imagined: Calcified by shock media images, the candidates see gadget-crazed narcissists, careless about the direction of their nation, so easily distracted with bread and circuses.

They get served trite slogans and cartoons (the speciality of Prabowo’s campaign ), plus K-Pop from supporters of former Jakarta Governor Dr Anies Baswedan.  He benefits, but being an academic, he denies personal involvement in such base tactics. Running a Republic requires gravitas.

One corny stunt involved choppering a sizeable white shirt above Jakarta’s Hotel Indonesia roundabout, supposedly implying former Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo has broad shoulders to carry the load. It looked like a heavenly Hills Hoist.

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The torrent of money suggests donors expect handsome rewards for their investments. Presidents can appoint ministers from outside politics. At a rough count, Prabowo is outspending his competitors two to one. As in Australia, such figures are fuzzy.

Contempt for customers is bad for business and representative government, but hey – who cares?  Snatch their vote, then shove ‘em back in steerage for five more years.

But teens grow up.

Indonesian education is in a bad way, but standards are improving.  The internet has demolished school walls and excited curiosity.

Kids are discovering the history road they’ve been led down is potholed with missing facts. Like ours and the frontier wars.

Most want the forests and rivers saved and cleansed, but few polis do green – they prefer smokestacks. Respondents to a uni survey last year sought a declaration of a climate emergency; sixty per cent thought the government hadn’t handled the crisis properly.

Nothing happened.

Problems with the umpire

Hopes for intelligent policy debate haven’t been helped by Indonesia’s Electoral Commission (Komisi Pemilihan Umum KPU), an agency with a grubby past.  In 2005 its chair, Monash Uni-educated  Dr Nazaruddin Sjamsuddin, was whacked with huge fines and seven years in jail for taking bribes.

A week before the election, the KPU leaders were found to have committed “ethics violations” over the endorsement of Gibran Rakabuming as a VP candidate.

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This will damage the KPU’s integrity but is unlikely to affect the machinery of an event far more complex than anything attempted by Canberra.

Politics is a blood sport;  the KPU, fearful of reputational assaults, sought friendly chats. Questions in its TV debates came from ponderous academics and mostly men, not bristly journos.

The public wants gladiators, but adrenalin drains away through a 30-minute prelude of prayers, the national anthem, the KPU song (‘Choose for Indonesia’), handshakes and formulaic speeches.  The candidates’ times are truncated, and their canvas is contained.

When the piles and fart-cure commercials (metaphors too apt to ignore) shown in the breaks are more credible than the candidates’ pledges of clean government, it’s clear the stench is ineradicable without extreme surgery.  That doctor’s not on-call.

Graft stinks as pungently as it did a decade ago when new President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo promised a fix. It’s repelling the ethical investors his regime yearns to lure: The latest Corruption Perception Index elbowed Indonesia down from 110 to 115 out of 180 countries measured.

Economy up – and down

Left-wing academic and Australian author Max Lane reckons Indonesian politics isn’t based on economic or social divides but on how the show has been staged: “Governance built around dynastic power, cronyism, and a right to rule presumed by members of the New Order elite.”

That was the 1966 – 1998 autocracy of General Soeharto. Although repressive, the economy expanded at an average of 7.1 per cent. Then came democracy, and growth crashed to 5.2 per cent.

“This is an irony or paradox, that in an era when political freedom was much curtailed, the economy grew at a rapid clip, while poverty levels fell away much more quickly than in the democratic era,” said ANU economist Dr Hal Hill. An awkward truth – dictators can get things done, for better and for worse.

There’s been a flurry of vote buying. Days out from the election, Jokowi, whose son Gibran Rakabuming is Prabowo’s VP pick,  announced welfare payments for the poor (a cohort larger than the population of Australia), plus wage rises for soldiers and civil servants.

More subtle are the social media finger salutes supposed to send secret messages of support but look more like an Aussie F*** Off signal.  Promises get pencilled on face wipes.

Prabowo’s idea to give 83 million school kids free milk has already soured.  There aren’t enough dairy cows in the tropical nation, and lactose intolerance is widespread.

The clown-of-the-month award (gender studies) goes to VP hopeful Mohammad Mahfud Mahmodin (Mahfud MD), blaming women for men’s corruption, reviving the New Order’s ‘State Ibuism’.

This specified women’s duties as breeder, feeder, scrubber and carer. If the kids go off the rails, it’s mum’s fault, added Mahfud.  The Legal and Security Minister later ‘clarified’ his comments.  By then, modern couples had gone elsewhere.

The polls are sus because sample sizes are too small, but suggest no one candidate getting more than half the votes.  If right, there’ll be a run-off on 26 June.

Australians should rest easy with either of the former governors winning, though much will depend on the new foreign minister.  Anies has assured his neighbours –  “no risk”. According to The Jakarta Post, Anies is the only candidate who has subtly hinted at a tapering end to Indonesia’s traditional stance on neutrality in foreign affairs. But this is tricky territory because the position dates from 1948 and has become an article of faith in the Republic.

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Indonesian democracy is already wounded. According to a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit, elections in Indonesia are

considered neither free nor fair, (because) many other prerequisites … such as freedom of speech and association are absent.

A Prabowo win will put democracy out of its misery.

At the time of writing, the most likely outcome is that neither candidate will get over 50%, which means a run-off in June, For that, all bets are off.

Nowhere to go. Refugees stranded in Indonesia while the world looks away.

Duncan Graham has a Walkley Award, two Human Rights Commission awards and other prizes for his radio, TV and print journalism in Australia. He now lives in Indonesia.

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