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Not just an elite game

In Bali, it’s neither policy, parties nor entrenched elites, but image-savvy politicians and an all-powerful media that are dominating the new electoral landscape


Graeme MacRae and I Nyoman Darma Putra

macrae-darma2.jpg
      Supporters of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his Democrat Party show their colours in the
      2009 general elections
      I Made Nagi

In Bali, most people have taken this year’s elections in their stride. Balinese are getting used to elections and are beginning to develop their own distinctive electoral culture.

And little wonder. In Bali, as in other parts of Indonesia, there have been many elections since the last national legislative and presidential elections in 2004. These have included several rounds of pilkada (direct elections of regional heads) at the district and city level, the election of a new governor of the province, as well as this year’s (national) general election of members of district, provincial and national parliaments.

Opinions vary on the extent to which truly democratic representation is being achieved in Indonesia. Research in many parts of the country suggests that political elites of the New Order period have found new ways of reconfiguring and consolidating their power through collusion, alliances and cartels that cross the lines of political parties. We have been following elections in Bali for several years, focusing on the cultural dimensions as well as the purely ‘political’ ones. What we have seen leads us toward somewhat different conclusions.

In Bali, old elites haven’t had it all their own way

In Bali, old elites, especially those from the royal houses, have been emerging as political contenders, but they haven’t had it all their own way. Not surprisingly, the powerful local media is also emerging as a dominant force in electoral politics, albeit a not entirely predictable one. Contrary to some of the more gloomy assessments of the growth of democracy, voters in Bali are becoming more interested in the policies and platforms of the candidates. But it’s a constantly shifting picture. Here is a brief summary of what we have learnt.

Electing district heads in 2005

In 2005, there were, for the first time, direct elections - pilkada - in four of the eight districts of Bali as well as in the capital city, Denpasar. In these elections, two new trends emerged.

One trend was the re-emergence of the traditional aristocracies. Since the colonial era, and especially since independence, they had been progressively disempowered. Now, they are returning to the formal political arena, both directly as sources of candidates and indirectly as sources of legitimation and support for candidates. Candidates also drew upon a political language and style derived from traditional forms of display and relationships of patronage between aristocracies and their subjects.

The second trend was the role of the mass media, particularly the dominant Bali Post Media Group (BPMG) in mediating and managing information about the candidates and their campaigns. Most media in Bali, but especially the Bali Post group, charge candidates fees for all but the most newsworthy of coverage of their campaigns, a practice which somewhat blurs the line between advertising and editorial content as well as constituting a significant source of income. As a result, candidates with fewer resources to ensure sympathetic coverage in the BPMG’s many outlets, faced an uphill battle getting elected.

Despite this essentially commercial policy, the Bali Post Media Group was very careful to give exactly equal coverage to candidates (provided they paid) and also to avoid showing partiality toward any particular candidate. In this way, and by using some of the visual language of traditional politics, the BPMG managed to present itself to the public as a neutral party concerned with the well-being of the whole island rather than any particular candidate or party. In this way they implied for themselves a role analogous to the traditional rulers of Bali.

Aristocratic status is a valuable resource that candidates can draw upon, but is not in itself decisive

The results in this cycle of elections were mixed. Some aristocratic candidates succeeded while others failed. The present distribution, after this and the subsequent elections in 2008 is three bupati of high (ie priestly or aristocratic) status and five of ordinary rank. So, while aristocratic status was a valuable resource that candidates could draw upon it was not in itself a decisive one. Two factors that were, on the other hand, strikingly unimportant were the role of political parties and of policy in the electoral campaigns.

To register for election, candidates needed to be nominated by a party or coalition of parties that received at least 15 per cent of the vote at the previous legislative election. But once registered, the candidates conducted their own campaigns and their parties often played little active part. In some cases parties were little more than convenient vehicles for candidates and devoted few resources to support them. Outside of Bali, the island is known as being a stronghold of the PDI-P (Indonesia Democracy Party-Struggle), the party led by Megawati Soekarnoputri at the national level. But on the ground, we rarely see much evidence for this. Some candidates backed by the PDI-P did get elected to executive government posts, but not all, and it’s hard to conclude that affiliation to that party confers much of an advantage. We suspect the pre-occupation that political scientists and other observers have with parties is often misleading.

Likewise, candidates did not highlight their aims, values and practical intentions in their campaigns. They focused more on their personal qualities and reputations and on building support by making visits to communities, during which favours were dispersed and promised. In these regards, elections in Bali resembled those elsewhere in the country, and it seemed to us that these trends might grow in future elections.

The Gianyar pilkada of 2008

The next major round of elections was in January 2008. Here we focus on just one of these elections, that for the district head, or bupati, of Gianyar, where the contest was between representatives of two of the wealthiest and most powerful palaces (puri) in Bali. The candidates were Cokorda Oka Artha Ardhana Sukawati (Cok Ace) from Puri Ubud and Anak Agung Bharata from Puri Gianyar. They were nominated by Bali’s two major parties, respectively Golkar and PDI-P. This election was framed and understood by local people largely in terms of the historical contest between the two royal houses.

This time, the Bali Post Media Group also began to move away from its previous even-handed, king-like role, allowing its commercially-driven policy of paid-for ‘news’ reporting to predominate. During the 2005 elections, fees started from as low as Rp 400,000 for an article. In the 2008 campaign, this had increased to a minimum of Rp 1 million for an article in the middle pages with a black and white photo. Front page ‘news’ with one medium size colour picture began at Rp 8 million.

This gave a significant public-relations advantage to the candidate with the greater financial resources, who happened to be Cok Ace. He did in fact win, albeit by a very narrow margin.

But in this election, policy also began to appear as a more significant factor. Cok Ace spoke of subsidised or even free secondary education and promised to facilitate jobs in the international tourism sector for underemployed local tourism workers. These promises appear to have been a factor leading to his success.

But while policy became more visible, parties did not, or if they did, it was not necessarily to the advantage of the candidate. Cok Ace’s successful campaign focused mainly on the candidate himself, and he tried to downplay his Golkar links. Bharata’s unsuccessful campaign focused as much on his party as himself. But despite coming from PDI-P, the most ‘successful’ party in Bali, this proved not to be an advantage, perhaps reflecting increasing public disillusionment with party politics. More importantly, it reflected the greater importance, in the eyes of the electorate, of the personalities and reputations of the candidates. Despite some public bad feeling between the candidates, a minor scuffle at a rally, and a threat by the Bharata team to contest the result in court, the result was accepted, if not especially gracefully.

Two factors that were strikingly unimportant were the role of political parties and of policy in the electoral campaigns

So, while specific loyalties to aristocratic houses were even more central to this election, the role of the media become more overtly commercial. Meanwhile the role of parties remained minimal, while that of policy began to increase.

Electing a new governor in 2008

Six months later, on 9 July 2008, there was an election for the governor of Bali. All three candidates had strong credentials: Gede Winasa was the sitting district head in Jembrana, with a record of reform of the civil service and support for education and health services; Cok Budi Suryawan was a former district head of Gianyar and was also provincial head of Golkar and a senior member of the royal house of Ubud; Made Mangku Pastika had no direct political or administrative experience, but was widely known and respected as the police chief who had quickly hunted down and apprehended those responsible for the Bali bombings in October 2002. Pastika had become a major public figure in Bali, with strong views on moral issues such as gambling, drugs and prostitution, as well as security.

While Suryawan was clearly the Golkar candidate, the PDI-P candidacy was more complex. Winasa became district head of Jembrana in opposition to a PDI-P candidate, but after he was elected he joined PDI-P and became its local chairperson, possibly with a view to attaining the party’s nomination in the gubernatorial race. However, the PDI-P’s national president, Megawati Soekarnoputri, gave her endorsement instead to Pastika. Winasa then resigned from the party and registered his candidature in the name of the Democrat Party and several smaller parties.

However, the Golkar and PDI-P party machines, especially the latter, did play a more significant part in the gubernatorial campaign than they had in the previous elections, and this may have given Suryawan and especially Pastika some advantage over Winasa, whose party support was minimal. However, what made PDI-P support for Pastika effective was that, unlike for Bharata in Gianyar, it kept the focus on the person of Pastika rather than on the party. Another advantage for Pastika was that he was a popular figure at the provincial, and even the national, level because of his police role, while Winasa and Suryawan were well-known only in their own districts.

The media again continued their lucrative commercial approach to electoral news. Most campaign teams signed contracts for advertorial coverage with Radar Bali (part of the Jawa Pos Group) and Nusa Bali (another private newspaper), as well as, of course, with the Bali Post Media Group. The escalating costs of campaigning through the media resulted in all candidates focusing heavily on direct personal campaigning in local communities, farmers’ organisations (subak) and other public venues.

The Bali Post and its affiliated outlets also, for the first time, published their own views which had a direct bearing on the outcome. In 2006, after a series of reports on Jembrana, which Winasa regarded as unfavourable, he had one of the BPMG’s journalists arrested on a legal technicality. The BPMG responded with charges of its own. The latter case never proceeded to court but the bad feelings continued. During the campaign the Bali Post and its affiliates published more stories unfavourable to Winasa than to other candidates. Whenever Winasa, or any other candidate, wanted to counter unfavourable stories, ironically just about the only effective method open was to run paid editorial content in the BPMG’s outlets. In Winasa’s case, the BPMG also successfully supported and lobbied the government to close down his main alternative, the local channel Jembrana TV, both protecting its own commercial interests as well as damaging Winasa’s election hopes.

Policies matter

macrae-darma1.jpg
      Cok Ace, the successful candidate campaigning for the district head position in Gianyar, campaigning in 2008
      I Nyoman Wilasa

All three candidates based their public campaigns on ‘programs’, which were essentially similar and addressed areas of known common concern: health, education and employment. They varied in their degrees of ambition or, some would say, realism. Winasa’s program focused on ‘Five Frees’ (Lima Bebas): corruption-free administration, free education, free health care, freedom from poverty and freedom from unemployment. Suryawan and Pastika offered what many saw as more realistic versions of the same program involving subsidised health and education for the poor, employment support and poverty reduction. In Suryawan’s case there was added emphasis on traditional institutions as the basis for development as well as infrastructure and housing. Pastika on the other hand emphasised security and tourism. His campaign slogan, Bali Mandara (Maju Aman Damai Sejahtera) means ‘Bali Moving Ahead, Secure, Peaceful, Prosperous’.

Interestingly, when we were conducting research, the opinions we heard expressed about the candidates, at least partly reflected these programs, something that had not been evident in previous elections. For example, in Gianyar, the culturally conservative heartland of south Bali, Suryawan’s emphasis on traditional culture was seen as a reason to vote for him, while Pastika’s known aversion to cockfighting and other forms of gambling was seen as an attack on tradition. Winasa’s rumoured openness to Islam was also an apparent disadvantage. Winasa’s wife Ratna Lestari is a Javanese Muslim who is currently the district head of Banyuwangi. This was used as the basis of ‘black’ (hidden) campaign against him.

The new awareness of policy did not mean that older sentiments were no longer relevant. The main reasons people in Gianyar gave for supporting Suryawan were that he was of high caste, descended from kings and thus naturally suited to rule. Some people said more simply that he was, in the parlance of cockfighting, their ‘home cock’. In the end, sentiments of this kind ensured that Suryawan did win in Gianyar and the other most conservative district, Karangasem. But in other more urban, modernised and cosmopolitan districts such views carried much less weight and he did not poll strongly. Winasa won only in his home district of Jembrana. Pastika, by contrast, won substantial majorities in his own home district of Buleleng and the urban and tourism-dominated areas in the south, allowing him to emerge as the clear winner overall.

Once again, the pattern of politics was changing, with aristocratic status counting more in some districts than others and the role of the media becoming even more important, and notably less impartial, than previously. The most important change was the increasing prominence of the policies of candidates in their campaigns, and in the perceptions of voters.

General elections, 2009

Throughout Indonesia, campaigning for the general election (for parliaments at district, provincial and national levels) began long before the formal start of campaigns. Most candidates ‘stole a start’ (mencuri start). In Bali this was partly justified by the fact that there were effectively only 14 days for the formal campaign, rather than 21, because of a succession of Hindu holidays. In Bali, candidates were able to make an early start by means of masimakrama and dharmasuaka. These are Balinese terms referring to friendly social visits, and in the campaign context the visits were made by candidates to groups such as aristocratic houses and local communities, as well as, inevitably, to the headquarters of the Bali Post Media Group. Despite the traditional terminology, these were visits to solicit support and to provide opportunities for candidates to make generous donations to local causes, a thinly disguised form of ‘money politics’.

The day of the election coincided with a large once-in-ten-years ritual, Panca Bali Krama, at the ‘mother’ temple Besakih. For thousands of Balinese this was a higher priority than the election. A voting booth in the temple complex was planned, but was abandoned because of administrative and technical complexities. As a result many voters had to rush to local voting booths to cast their votes and it is likely that others did not vote for the same reason. The non-participation voter figure in Bali was 25.32 per cent, lower than the 29.01 per cent national figure.

The factors contributing to candidates’ success in the general election were mixed. Members of aristocracies like Cok Suryawan and his cousin Cok Kerthiyasa from Puri Ubud, and Anak Agung Bharata from Puri Gianyar (who was defeated in the 2008 pilkada) won seats in the Bali provincial parliament. Other winning candidates had strong political backgrounds in parties and the bureaucracy. Above all, two critical factors seem to have been important for success: money to fund candidates’ campaigns and strong networks of social-political support. Aristocratic background undoubtedly helped with both these factors, but was not in itself significant. The importance of policy programs was once again minimal, as the public began to tire of hearing more or less identical promises from dozens of candidates.

Whatever the political outcomes, the big winner financially was again the local media, especially the Bali Post Media Group

Whatever the political outcomes, the big winner financially was again the local media, especially the Bali Post Media Group. The only candidate who was able to win without following the previously established pattern of organising very expensive media campaigns was Kadek Arimbawa (aka Lolak) a local comedian who won a seat in the Regional Representatives Council (DPD) in Jakarta, representing Bali. He reportedly spent only Rp 150 million on his campaign, which consisted largely of performances at public rallies held by major political parties for their own campaigns. Instead of asking for a performance fee, he asked to promote his own candidacy for the DPD. For some his success confirmed a popular perception that politicians do not need to be either smart or strong but ‘funny’.

As for the party vote, the pattern was broadly similar to the past. PDI-P again took the largest proportion of votes (40.94 per cent, Golkar was second with 16.76 per cent and the Democrat Party was third with 14.61 per cent. However, PDI-P and Golkar both lost seats, while the Democrats increased almost threefold when compared to the 2004 general election. While PDI-P is still the dominant party in Bali, and Golkar have gained little ground, the emergence of the Democrat Party has changed the political landscape.

Emerging trends

While this is but a small sample from a not-very-typical part of Indonesia, the rapidly evolving electoral scene in Bali does not seem to fit the pattern of cross-party cartels and collusion of established elites that other observers have argued is developing in other parts of Indonesia. While many of the candidates in all these elections obviously had a degree of elite status, and some were arguably part of the established political elite, few of the successful ones were even established politicians. The emerging system has provided new opportunities for new candidates from varying backgrounds. It has also enabled voters to choose on the basis of their own perceptions, which have not always reflected established patterns of political power and hierarchy. As for policy, while it is has become much more visible in campaigns, there are indications that the public is sceptical of policy promises. Above all, the local media, especially the monopolistic Bali Post Media Group, play a crucial role in shaping electoral outcomes, and it found elections to be a very lucrative source of extra income. Media domination, personality politics and policy promises, and a minimal role for parties: politics in Bali are starting to look more and more like the politics we see in established democracies.     ii

Graeme MacRae (G.S.Macrae@massey.ac.nz) teaches Social Anthropology in the School of Social and Cultural Studies, Massey University, Auckland.

I Nyoman Darma Putra (d.putra@uq.edu.au) is a postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Languages and Comparative Cultural Studies, University of Queensland, and a lecturer in the Indonesian Department, University of Udayana, Bali.


Inside Indonesia 97: Jul-Sep 2009



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