Sep 22, 2020 Last Updated 7:31 AM, Sep 18, 2020

Blood or money?

Elizabeth Collins and Muhammad Sirozi

In South Sumatra, as elsewhere in Indonesia, reformasi and regional autonomy have prompted local politicians to try to organise along thnic lines. In particular, many of them have promoted ‘native son’ (putra daerah) candidates for district and provincial office. However, recent elections in the province show that the ethnic’ card simply masks what is primarily a struggle between networks of political and economic elites for control over economic assets and political office. This struggle has also reached beyond local politics all the way to Jakarta.

Unlike the Sumatran provinces of Aceh, West Sumatra, North Sumatra, Jambi, and Riau — where one ethnic group dominates — South Sumatra’s population is made up of many small ethnic groups who speak distinctive dialects (or in the case of Redjang a different language).

Money still talks

Following the introduction of the new regional autonomy legislation in 1999, local parliaments now elect district heads (bupati) and provincial governors. In South Sumatra, Musi Rawas (Mura) was one of the first regions to elect a district head under the new legislation. The largest political party in the Mura district legislature (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat Daerah or DPRD) was Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Democratic Struggle Party (PDIP), which held 20 out of 40 seats. However, PDIP members were divided. On the one hand were those supporting the official PDIP candidate, Supriyono Joesef, a retired military officer. On the other, were those who charged that to elect a retired military officer was a betrayal of reformasi.

Supriyono’s opponents also demanded that the new district head be a putra daerah. Supriyono does not come from Mura, but from a village in the Musi area. Two rival candidates with close ties to Golkar, the political party of the old Suharto regime, emerged from one of Mura’s strongest families, the Rawas clan.

A successful young businessman, Prana Sohe, organised support for these opposition candidates, both of whom were also related to him. Known to student activists as ‘the boss,’ Sohe represents a new breed of political actors: local elites angling for access to the district government, which will dispense contracts and concessions for, among other things, the exploitation of natural resources.

So he recognises the power of bringing people together politically along ethnic lines. In the lead-up to the election, he helped Supriyono’s opponents to set up an organisation with strong ethnic alliances, Oath of Mura People (Sumpah Rakyat Mura or SRM) to support their candidates. In response Supriyono established his own ethnically-based support group, regardless of the fact that he had never lived in Mura.

Despite appearances, the decisive factor in this election was not ethnic mobilisation, but money politics (politik uang). Supriyono was accused of bribery when his staff were seen meeting with Mura legislature members. They protested to the then Minister of Regional Autonomy, M. Ryaas Rasyid, who declared that the election would have to be annulled if the police proved there had been bribery of DPRD members. In the end, the bribery investigation was a farce. Supriyono won the election.

Afterwards, local newspapers reported that the staff of one of the failed candidates was demanding PDIP representatives return money they had taken in exchange for votes. The police investigation determined that Supriyono’s election was valid because they could only prove that his opponents engaged in bribery.

In the end those electing Supriyono and those supporting other candidates, understood that questions of ethnicity were far less important than the ability to pay.

Political games

Ethnicity also figured in the election of a new governor for South Sumatra in August 2003. It was regarded as significant that a putra daerah candidate, Syahrial Oesman, from Ogan Komering Ulu (OKU) in South Sumatra, challenged the incumbent, Rosihan Arsyad.

Rosihan, from Mana in Bengkulu province, was the official candidate of PDIP. The party held 26 out of 75 seats in the provincial legislature. PDIP had formed an alliance with Golkar with 15 seats. This gave Rosihan 41 votes. As a former naval officer, he could count on support from the military faction in the legislature.

A faction supporting reform in district government nominated Syahrial Oesman in part for his ethnic identity, but also for his other assets. As a civil servant during the New Order, he has strong ties to Golkar. As a former chairman of the Communication Forum for the Children of Retired Military Officers (Forum Komunikasi Putra Putri Purnawirawan ABRI) in Bangka, he also had the support of the military faction. More importantly, Syahrial Oesman was also a close associate of Taufiq Kiemas, husband of President Megawati. Kiemas has his own network in South Sumatra, known as the ‘Palembang Mafia’. Several high profile local businessmen also provided financial support for his campaign. On election day Syahrial Oesman won the election by a single vote.

It was later revealed that at the final vote one member — who had resigned his position but had not yet been replaced — was brought from his sick bed to the legislature to vote. This and various other irregularities led to demands for a new election.

In response, Syahrial Oesman’s supporters held a demonstration demanding the election results be accepted. An estimated 5,000 people attended, many brought in by bus from Oesman’s and Kiemas’ home region. Also present were members of New Order organisations — Golkar and the youth organisation Pemuda Pancasila — along with local criminal gangs (preman).

President Megawati Sukarnoputri delayed the certification of the election results for three months, fuelling rumours about a split with her husband. Finally, after sanctioning PDIP representatives who had not voted for Rosihan by dropping them from the PDIP roster, Megawati authorised Syahrial Oesman’s inauguration. This left the position of PDIP branch leader in South Sumatra vacant. But not for long. Nazaruddin Kiemas, younger brother of Taufiq Kiemas, was elected as the new leader in South Sumatra and the Palembang Mafia claimed the points in this round in the new game of local electoral politics.

In South Sumatra local politics appears to be increasingly driven by money and alliances of political figures and entrepreneurs.

Elizabeth Collins (eliz_collins@ teaches at Ohio University. Muhammad Sirozi is the Dean of the Graduate Faculty at IAIN Raden Fatah, Palembang.

Inside Indonesia 78: Apr - Jun 2004

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