Winning the villages
Published: Jul 05, 2009

Achmad Uzair Fauzan

      Checking out the candidates in Jepara
      Achmad Uzair Fauzan

Analysis of a candidate’s chances in an election often focuses on their financial resources, their networks or their prominence. But grassroots political organisers can be just as important to a political aspirant’s success or failure. A single candidate in Indonesia may employ hundreds of grassroots campaign organisers , even to run for a district-level parliament. Their close personal ties within communities make these grassroots organisers a conduit through which candidates gain direct access to voters.

The role of village-level political organisers has been growing ever since the fall of Suharto’s authoritarian regime. Under Suharto, political parties were barred from establishing boards below district level. But with parties able to establish structures right down to the village level to compete in newly democratic elections, grassroots organisers have over time become an important ingredient in party success at election times.

However, a change in the electoral system forced by Indonesia’s Constitutional Court elevated village-level organisers to particular importance in this year’s parliamentary election. Under Indonesia’s proportional electoral system, seats are first allocated to parties and then to individual party candidates. Individuals can vote either for parties or for individual candidates. Previously seats went to candidates in the order the party chose to place them on the ballot form. Recognising that all candidates must have an equal opportunity to be elected, the Court ruled that each party’s seats must be allocated to the candidates who won the most votes.

The Court’s decision changed the nature of political competition. Candidates were no longer just competing against other parties. They also needed to outperform other candidates from their own party. Needing to maximise their individual tallies, candidates for district parliaments in particular turned to grassroots organisers to deliver votes.

Political entrepreneurs

In Jepara district in Central Java, grassroots political organisers are commonly known as sabet, a Javanese word that literally means a whip needed to make something go faster. Successful sabet typically have wide social networks and have the influence or eloquence to persuade their fellow villagers to vote for a particular candidate.

Nurul is a sabet in Welahan, one of Jepara’s sixteen sub-districts. (All sabet and candidates in this article are referred to by pseudonyms.) With a background in Islamic youth organisations, Nurul has also since 2004 been the head of the village-level board of a party representing the traditionalist Islamic community that is so strong in this part of Java. Five years ago, when seats were allocated to candidates based on the order in which they appeared on their party’s list, Nurul simply told villagers to look for the party’s symbol on the ballot form. This year, by contrast, he campaigned specifically for Imam, his party’s first-ranked candidate for the district parliament.

‘Imam was the only candidate who gathered us together and gave us money’, Nurul said, describing the meeting at which the party’s sub-district board had instructed the village boards to campaign for Imam. Each attendee at the meeting received only a token payment: an envelope containing Rp 20,000 (about A$2.50). After the meeting, Nurul began preparing to campaign for Imam, but he did not receive further resources to do so until just before the election.

Another sabet, Mustofa is a small entrepreneur, specialising in the trade of eggs. Mustofa is quite popular in his village because he is a member of the village council. Like Nurul, Mustofa is also a village-level board member of a political party, in his case the National Mandate Party (PAN). Mustofa is also affiliated to Muhammadiyah, a modernist Islamic organisation loosely associated with PAN. Four villagers from Mustofa’s village stood for the district parliament as candidates for different parties. But instead of campaigning for the candidate from his party, Mustofa worked for Prakoso, an incumbent candidate who was running for a rival secular nationalist party.

Mustofa decided to work for Prakoso after the latter had helped him to secure funding to renovate a local Islamic prayer-house. ‘I took my renovation proposal to several different district MPs, but it was Prakoso who got it approved’, said Mustofa, explaining how they had met. Mustofa also claimed to have been impressed by a change in Prakoso’s behaviour after the candidate made the pilgrimage to Mecca. ‘Since he became a pilgrim (haji), Prakoso no longer dances [with the girls] on stage when they have dangdut concerts at local wedding receptions’, Mustofa said, giving an example of Prakoso’s increasing piety.

But by campaigning for Prakoso, Mustofa was not only working for a candidate from a different party. He was also campaigning for a party unlikely to be popular in his village because of its secular nationalist orientation, whereas Mustofa’s village has always been a stronghold for Islamic parties. Before working for Prakoso, Mustofa had worked as a sabet in several other elections over the previous five years. But he readily acknowledged that securing victory in his village for Prakoso would be his most difficult assignment to date.

Grassroots campaigning

Sabet do not work alone. Both Nurul and Mustofa formed campaign teams to help them gather votes. Nurul had nine friends helping him to persuade villagers to vote for Imam; Mustofa had a team of seven, with each person responsible for a different neighbourhood. To campaign, sabet and their teams use a combination of personal networks and vote-buying. But exactly how actively sabet are able to work, and by extension how many voters they can cover, depends on how much money their candidates make available.

To campaign, sabet and their teams use a combination of personal networks and vote-buying

Nurul was by far the less active of the two sabet. His strategy was to make cash payments to villagers to encourage them to choose his candidate, Imam. He first drew up a list of villagers he believed would vote for Imam and submitted it to the candidate and the party. Then, a few days before the election, once the party had confirmed that money would be available, he went around to collect signatures from everyone on the list, telling them they would receive a payment. Finally, two days before the election, Nurul distributed Rp 10,000 to each of his fellow villagers who had signed.

In addition to the money for the villagers, Imam also gave Nurul Rp 150,000 as a reward for his team’s work. With nine members in his team, each person received only around Rp 15,000. To increase the amount they each received, Nurul also asked his team to work as witnesses at polling booths on election day, for which they each earned an extra Rp 50,000.

By contrast, Mustofa received several payments from Prakoso, each time being given around Rp 500,000 to share with his team members. He started work much sooner than Nurul, around a year before election day. As a first step, Mustofa went to visit board members from several local prayer-houses and asked them to draw up proposals for renovation projects. Prakoso was then able to use the spoils of incumbency to support the proposals. All members of parliament in Jepara are allocated Rp 30 million from the district budget each year as discretionary funds to be disbursed through the local People’s Welfare Agency office. Prakoso would sign off on the proposals, which would then be funded by the office. All up, Mustofa said, Prakoso approved seven projects totalling Rp 5 million in his village during the year prior to the election. Mustofa was then able to introduce Prakoso as the person responsible each time a project was approved.

Nor did Mustofa rely only on current contributions to persuade villagers to vote for Prakoso; he also told them that the candidate would be able to deliver benefits in the future. ‘I told them Prakoso also plans to run for district head. It will be much easier to get development projects in our village if we are close to the district’s leader’, Mustofa said.

Mustofa did not admit to making direct payments to villagers of the sort made by Nurul, saying the key to his work on behalf of Prakoso was his good approach to villagers. Nevertheless, it was rumoured in the village that Prakoso had also distributed small sums of money to villagers on the eve of the election.

An expensive business

Using sabet and engaging in vote-buying makes running for office extremely expensive. Prakoso estimated that he spent Rp 200 million (around A$25,000) just to run for Indonesia’s lowest level of regional parliament. But it is hard to succeed without spending money in this way. Many villagers distrust politicians, believing that they are running for office to enrich themselves. If candidates stand to gain financially when they succeed, these villagers reason, then the villagers themselves ought to be able to receive direct financial benefits from the candidates’ campaigns.

The risk for candidates is more that they make a bad investment and do not get elected rather than that they will run afoul of the law

Moreover, the risk for candidates is more that they make a bad investment and do not get elected rather than that they will run afoul of the law. Even if candidates are caught engaging in vote-buying, the cases are unlikely to find their way to court. As the head of Jepara’s Election Oversight Committee (Panwaslu) Zarkoni explained, prosecutions are hampered because villagers are reluctant to come forward as witnesses and because the articles proscribing vote-buying in the electoral law are vague.

With so much money flowing to sabet, candidates keep an eye on how the money is spent. Imam checked on his investment by requiring Nurul to submit a list of villagers’ signatures, for example. Prakoso, by contrast, claimed to have set up a second team of people specifically to monitor the work of sabet like Mustofa. Drawn from his inner circle, this second team told him whether the sabet were genuinely working for him or had simply wasted his money.

Costly politics

With many candidates engaging in vote-buying, even the use of sabet does not guarantee success. Of the two candidates in this article, Prakoso retained his seat, with his party even winning a majority in Mustofa’s village – quite an achievement for a candidate from a secular-nationalist party in a traditionally Islamic village. But Imam lost in Nurul’s village, and missed out on a seat in the district parliament.

For failed candidates like Imam, the financial burden of running for office may discourage them from trying again in five years’ time. Others may be discouraged from running for office at all, perceiving that the new electoral system favours candidates with ample cash.

Some observers, including local NGO activists, also see the widespread use of sabet as an alarming sign that the performance of the local parliament is deteriorating. They fear that, instead of working in the interests of their constituents, MPs will use their position to recoup their huge personal campaign expenses and even make a profit if they can.

Sabet then are costly not only to the candidates that hire them. In the longer run, the vote-buying they often facilitate generates significant costs for the quality of local democracy.     ii

Achmad Uzair Fauzan (achmad_uzair@yahoo.com) is a researcher at Lafadl Initiatives, Yogyakarta, and a recent graduate of the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, The Netherlands. He would like to thank Jim Schiller for his input into this article.


Inside Indonesia 97: Jul-Sep 2009