What do you get when you cross Sarah Palin and an Islamic polygamist? Meet Rhoma Irama – Indonesia’s king of dangdut
Maesy Angelina and Ben Davis
It seems not a week goes by when we don’t hear that Indonesia is at a crossroads. The usual story goes that Indonesia has negotiated a successful transition to democracy, but has a few kinks to be ironed out if it is to continue to prosper and consolidate itself as a mature democracy.
The election of Joko Widodo (Jokowi) and Basuki Tjahja Purnama (Ahok) as Jakarta’s governor and vice governor and the entry of a series of other independent candidates to the political realm bring positive prospects for Indonesia’s future. At the same time, on a national scale, the lack of accountability for political parties, increasing cases of religious intolerance and ongoing corruption scandals involving elected officials continue to mar the rosy picture of Indonesian democracy.
With limited political accountability, popularity is a key asset for aspiring members of local and national parliaments alike. Recognising the public’s disenchantment with the current political system, political parties are increasingly going out of their way to source candidates outside the party machine. The success rate for independent candidates in getting political party support in the presidential race is zero so far. But recent trends suggest we can expect to see more independent candidates. The fact that Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is due to hang up his hat in 2014 also improves prospects for outsiders.
Enter Rhoma Irama: infamous dangdut star turned preacher; former People’s Representative Assembly (MPR) member for Golkar, and polygamist, who announced his self-nomination for the 2014 Presidential election on 11 November 2012.
From dangdut king to presidential hopeful
Rhoma Irama, born Raden Irama in the Tasikmalaya region of West Java in 1946, has been a controversial public figure in Indonesia for the past five decades.
Affectionately known as Bang Haji, Rhoma made his public debut as a musician in the Malay orchestra genre in the late 1960s. He later shifted to dangdut, an Indonesian music genre influenced by Hindi, Malay, and Arabic music, where he made his mark by including moral and religious messages in his songs. While sporting Western rock-and-roll inspired attire, he sang against extra-marital sex, corruption, drugs, and gambling. He put his money where his mouth was by kicking out band members who consumed alcohol or had extra-marital sex. This proved to be a popular move. He went on to produce 57 albums and star in 25 movies, which earned him the title ‘king of dangdut’.
Rhoma’s popularity prompted political parties to woo him into supporting their campaigns. Rhoma chose to side with the Islamic United Development Party (PPP) from 1977 to 1982, angering the ruling party, Golkar. As a consequence, he was banned from performing on the government national TV station, TVRI, for a decade. Rhoma severed his alliance to PPP in the late 1980s, but then made a re-appearance as a member of the People’s Representative Assembly (MPR) for Golkar in 1992 to 1997.
Rhoma again stepped out of the limelight in the 2000s, focusing on his duties as a preacher. His polygamous marriage, extra marital affairs with younger dangdut singers, and his condemnation of Inul Daratista, a dangdut singer who shot to fame with her gyrating moves, calling her a disgrace to Islam, occasionally made tabloid headlines. The latter made national news and fuelled debate on the concept of ‘porno-action’ that eventually made its way to the contentious 2008 Pornography Law.
In 2012, Rhoma made national headlines by stating that Jakartans should not vote for leaders who are not Muslim, an explicit reference to Ahok, Jokowi’s Christian running mate, who is also ethnic Chinese. He was then called in for questioning by the Jakarta Election Supervisory Committee on the grounds that he had violated a regulation prohibiting political campaigning in places of worship, though he was found not guilty of the charges. Rhoma declared his willingness to become a presidential candidate on 11 November 2012, stating that he was ‘called’ to do so upon seeing the anxiety of many Muslims after a ‘certain ethnic group’ won the gubernatorial election in Jakarta.
Popularity for popularity’s sake?
Analysts have had trouble taking Rhoma seriously. Burhanuddin Muhtadi, a senior researcher at Lembaga Survei Indonesia, dismissed Rhoma’s self-nomination, suggesting that it should be treated as joke of the month. This response has been echoed by many Indonesian social media users. Within a few days, a satirical support group for Rhoma called SPERMA (Rhoma Irama’s Supporters’ Association) popped up on Facebook. The Twittersphere erupted with jokes, and videos of Metallica and Guns and Roses lip-syncing to Rhoma’s most popular songs went viral. After all, in addition to his notorious track record, this is a guy who stated in an interview on national television that a president is not required to have a political opinion on important issues because a ‘brain trust’ of experts is available to advise him.
Surely someone who intends to run for president but doesn’t have anything to say on contentious public issues like fuel subsidy will not gain support from the public nor political parties? Don’t look now, but Rhoma might actually gain such support. Two political parties are reportedly seriously considering Rhoma as their presidential candidate. The head of the National Awakening Party (PKB), the party associated with former president Gus Dur, had a meeting with Rhoma to discuss a possible partnership. Romahurmuzy, the Secretary General of PPP, has also announced that his party will include Rhoma in the electability survey used to determine its presidential candidates.
Rhoma’s candidacy also has significant public support. In addition to his official fan club, Rhoma is supported by the Wasiat Ulama Association and the Indonesia Malay Musicians Association. A mass based organisation called Betawi Cengkareng also put up a ‘Rhoma Irama for President’ poster in Kemanggisan. In obvious references to other possible presidential candidates, Prabowo and Aburizal Bakrie, a blogger at Kompasiana argued that a Rhoma presidency is a better option than electing a person responsible for mass human rights violations in Timor Leste or someone whose company was responsible for the biggest man-made disaster in Indonesia. Rhoma also appeals to elements of the Islamic constituency. As another blogger simply wrote, ‘Best wishes for your struggle to bring Indonesia back to the true Islamic values, Bang Haji. My prayers are with you.’
In short, the Rhoma Irama saga shows that popularity remains a key factor in Indonesia’s political parties’ consideration of presidential candidates. It might appear that Indonesian legislatures are now over-run by celebrities. A closer look reveals, however, that celebrities actually only hold 3 per cent of seats in the People’s Representative Council (DPR). This suggests that, in terms of electability, there is a difference between simply being known by the public and being known as a good political candidate. This interpretation is supported by Bill Liddle’s analysis, which has shown a shift of Indonesian voting choices from mostly voting based on charisma in 1999 and 2004 elections to increased consideration of the state of the economy and performance of the incumbent in 2009. Meanwhile, surveys conducted by Lembaga Survey Indonesia (LSI) and the Center for Political Studies in the University of Indonesia (Puskapol UI) reveal that while the ethnic and religious background of candidates still plays a role in voter choices, it is not the only factor, and perhaps no longer even the most important. In fact, Puskapol UI’s survey showed that the 66.9 per cent of respondents based their vote on the quality of a candidate’s program. These findings suggest that the successful candidates in the upcoming election will be the ones whose popularity is complemented by a strong record of political leadership experience, rather than just popularity for popularity’s sake.
The good, the bad – and the bizarre
It is easy to dwell on the absurdity of Rhoma Irama’s possible presidential candidacy. But the saga actually contains an important story about the health of Indonesia’s democracy. After all, democracy does bring with it the good and the bad. Rhoma’s case reminds us that everyone has the same right to be a presidential candidate. A healthy democracy like Indonesia’s makes way for the quirky, the popular and the bizarre. Indonesia isn’t alone in this – after all, the US has the Tea Party and Sarah Palin.
But Indonesia’s recent political history also hints that, in the long run, weak candidates who use cheap political tricks will be less successful than candidates with a strong and relevant track record. Rhoma’s attempts to derail the Jakarta gubernatorial elections in 2012 through cheap inflammatory comments about governor candidates Ahok and Jokowi simply didn’t resonate with Jakarta voters. The survey results further attest to this and suggest that these sorts of comments are no longer welcome across Indonesia.
And so the soap opera remains unfinished. One thing is for sure, though: Jakarta’s 2012 gubernatorial election showed that popularity based on image is not the only key to winning. Let’s hope that this trend continues.
Maesy Angelina (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Ben Davis (email@example.com) are development workers based in Jakarta. Maesy holds a MA on Development Studies with a focus on Youth Studies from the International Institute of Social Studies – University of Rotterdam in 2010. Ben graduated with first class Honours from the University of Sydney in 2007, having completed a thesis on Indonesian NGO activism.