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A new political animal?

A new political animal?

Christine Susanna Tjhin

    Will Chinese Indonesians' renewed confidence translate into political participation?
    Henri Ismail

As the 2009 national elections approach, Chinese Indonesians face a paradox. While most Chinese Indonesians do not wish to position themselves as an exclusive ethnic-based political grouping, major parties have done little beside talk about addressing the social discrimination that Chinese Indonesians face. Ethnic-based political parties had little success in the 1999 and 2004 national elections as the Chinese Indonesian Reform Party and the Indonesian Bhinneka Tunggal Ika Party failed to garner community support. The Chinese Indonesian vote was spread across nationalist secular parties. Some Chinese Indonesians didn’t bother to vote at all.

Fewer than 50 Chinese Indonesian candidates stood in the 1999 national election. In 2004, there were nearly 150 

Since the resumption of democratic elections in Indonesia in 1999, candidates of ethnic Chinese descent have stood in both national and local elections and their level of participation in campaigns and in public debates has increased. Fewer than 50 Chinese Indonesian candidates stood in the 1999 national election. In 2004, there were nearly 150. However, much still needs to be done if the Chinese Indonesian community is to move beyond political rhetoric and what is largely symbolic participation.

Making moves in local politics

In the past, most attention has been directed to Chinese Indonesians on the national stage. But in recent years Chinese Indonesians have been increasingly engaged in local politics. Their motivations are varied. However, in most cases where Chinese Indonesian candidates have been successful they have appealed not to an ‘ethnic vote’ instead running on a platform of general issues. In August 2005, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama became district head of East Belitung, backed by a coalition of two small parties – the New Indonesia Party of Struggle and the Bung Karno Nationalist Party. Basuki claimed that the Chinese Indonesian population in the district is around ten per cent, but he won 37.13 per cent of the vote. Local media highlighted the support for Basuki from various ethnic groups and his provision of free basic education and health care in East Belitung.

In most cases where Chinese Indonesian candidates have been successful they have appealed not to an ‘ethnic vote’ instead running on a platform of general issues

Similarly, in 2007, Hasan Karman from the New Indonesia Struggle Party became district head of Singkawang, a region in West Kalimantan with one of the highest distributions of Chinese Indonesians. Hasan’s party won 41.8 per cent of the vote. In the same province, a senior player in the Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-P), Christiandy Sanjaya, is the current deputy governor. He won the 2007 election with 43.67 per cent of the vote by focusing his agenda on education and small-medium enterprises.

Other Chinese Indonesians have raised debate simply by participating. The possibility of a Chinese Indonesian candidate for deputy governor was raised for the first time during Jakarta’s 2007 local elections. A prospective candidate on the PDI-P ticket, entrepreneur and businessman and deputy chair of the Nationalist Democracy Forum (Fordeka), Eddie Kusuma, had previously run unsuccessfully for a seat in the 2004 Jakarta district elections. His bid to run for deputy governor was backed by some senior PDI-P members and other politicians, including Amien Rais. In November 2006 at the launch of his bid Kusuma declared that he would not run as an ethnic Chinese candidate, but as an Indonesian citizen who wants the best for his country and in particular for the greater Jakarta region. Though his bid failed, with PDI-P choosing eventual election victors Fauzi Bowo and Prijanto, the support for Kusuma from high profile politicians and other figures was most encouraging for ethnic Chinese in politics more generally. Another figure, Marco Kusumaatmadja, with the support of a diverse coalition of civil society elements, also ran for governor. But his unique agenda was to stimulate debates about independent candidacy and had nothing to do with ethnicity.

Disagreements exist within Chinese communities over claims by candidates to represent Chinese interests

However, disagreements exist within Chinese communities over claims by candidates to represent Chinese interests. In some cases this has led to protests on the basis that they have no right to ‘represent’ the Chinese Indonesian community in general or in the local area in which political campaigns occurred. For example, prior to the Riau provincial elections in March 2008, Hartono Sudi, the chairman of the local Chinese Indonesian Social Association distributed a printed endorsement for the incumbent candidate. Other members of the association immediately went to the media to protest, stating that Sudi should have made a personal endorsement and not misused the association’s name. Similar stories can be found in other regions. Such opposition stems from the failure of most associations to cater to various interests within the community and from competition for leadership.

Beyond tokenism

Concerns about the implications of endorsing one or another political party or candidate means that most Chinese Indonesian associations allow their members to be active in politics only on an individual basis. Some, such as the Chinese Indonesian Association, have focused their attentions on raising awareness and furthering political education for its members. The aims are to further increase political awareness, participation and regeneration.

Nonetheless, the experience of advocating for the 2006 Citizenship Law and 2008 Anti Racial and Ethnic Discrimination Law in the parliament demonstrates that Chinese Indonesian advocacy has not been linked effectively to other marginalised groups in society. Limited human resources, an undeveloped political agenda and awareness have prevented them from interacting strategically with these other groups. Consequently, instead of moving together under the universal banner of anti-discrimination, it appeared that the Chinese Indonesians have made it exclusively theirs.

Parties recruiting candidates for the 2009 elections have mostly failed to seriously consider ethnic Chinese as having real political strength. Rather, they are valued only in terms of their expected financial contributions, benefit towards fulfilling the electoral quota, and a forced political correctness attached to recruiting ‘minorities’. It is in the parties, however, that the greatest opportunity to shape a better future for Indonesian pluralism lies. If given the opportunity, the 2009 elections are one way in which Chinese Indonesians may escape the lingering stereotypes and take part in Indonesia’s democratisation as a more mature political entity.     ii

Christine Susanna Tjhin ( is a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. She is currently a Junior Visiting Scholar at the Peking University, Beijing, China.

Inside Indonesia 95: Jan-Mar 2009

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