May 28, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Election politics

Election politics

Edward Aspinall

      Sarijo, a member of the Golkar party at a campaign event in Yogyakarta. From Tepus, Gunung Kidul, he is
      a security guard for the party. His job was to take care of the delegation of Golkar supporters from
      Gunung Kidul who were in town to show their colours for their party
      Danu Primanto

Ten years ago, Indonesia held its first democratic elections in the post-Suharto period. The lead article in Inside Indonesia’s pre-election special in 1999 noted that many in the Indonesian press were warning that ‘the coming elections have the potential for national disaster’. But on the day of the polls, the nation heaved a sigh of relief, and outsiders applauded. The elections were generally peaceful, their results were respected, and they ushered in a period of democratic government that has survived, albeit with ups and downs and plenty of shortcomings, until this day.

Ten years on, the atmosphere could hardly be more different. Open elections have become part of Indonesia’s democratic furniture. In April, voters around the country went to the polls to elect thousands of members of legislative assemblies at the national, provincial and district levels. Later this week, citizens will take part in the first of two possible rounds of voting for a president and vice-president. Few people expected either dramatic change or chaos during this year’s elections. In fact, many citizens have lost their initial enthusiasm for voting, but they also take it for granted that this is the way that governments rise and fall.

True to the dampened expectations, the legislative elections last April did not usher in dramatic changes. Some parties – notably President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Partai Demokrat – did better than in the past, and some did worse. But there were no spectacular breakthroughs or overturnings of established patterns. In the presidential election, the incumbent Yudhoyono is such a strong favourite that some people speculate that he may win in next week’s first round of voting (a second round will only be held if he fails to win an absolute majority and at least twenty per cent in half of the provinces).

But underneath the routine, this year’s elections are still a fascinating moment in Indonesia’s national life. In Indonesia, as in other countries, elections not only determine who controls the government. They can also reveal the social and cultural currents that animate society. Perhaps even more importantly, elections also show much about deeper patterns of power and inequality, about who dominates society and how they do so, and about whose voices are not heard. Elections cement and reflect power even more than they determine it.

Most of the articles in this edition of Inside Indonesia both describe what happened during this year’s legislative elections and delve into the deeper patterns and processes they reveal. In our lead article, ‘Chaos and consolidation’ , Marcus Mietzner argues that the strong showing for Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his Democrat Party is a sign of the strengthening of democracy, but he points to declining quality of the elections as a cause for concern. Dirk Tomsa, in ‘The eagle has crash-landed ’, looks at the attempt by the notorious former commander of the army’s special forces, Prabowo Subianto, to become a dominant electoral force. While Prabowo failed to achieve the result his big spending might have produced, it is likely he will remain a political contender in the future.

The next group of articles explores the fate of the Islamic parties, which this year did not do particularly well. Bernhard Platzdasch, in ‘Down but not out ’, analyzes the reason for this poor showing, but argues that political Islam is far from being a spent force. Many nationalist parties are willing to accommodate Islamic demands, suggesting a convergence on the political centre. Thomas B. Pepinsky, in ‘Dominant but weak ’, argues that the election outcome disguises long-term weaknesses in the secular-nationalist parties and points to future opportunities for forces promoting a conservative Islamist agenda, especially the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS). Jeremy Menchik, by contrast, in his photo essay ‘Symbols and signs ’ about a PKS rally, suggests that the party’s supporters show signs of greater ideological diversity than they are customarily supposed to exhibit.

This year, more than in any previous election, former student activists and leaders of NGOs stood as candidates in the elections. Dave McRae in ‘Seeking representation ’ looks at what motivated activists in Central Sulawesi to go down this path, and points to the rather disappointing results. Benita Chudleigh, in ‘Feeling cheated, acting apathetic ’, views the election from the campus of Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, once a hotbed of the student radicalism that helped bring down Suharto. This year, Chudleigh still finds political alienation on campus, but now this alienation means that many students are simply not interested in voting.

Our final group of articles looks at the role of local elites, and of money, in elections. In ‘Suicide and progress in modern Nusantara ’, Michael Buehler asks why Indonesian elections are relatively peaceful. Candidates for political office in Indonesia rarely kill each other, unlike in some neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia. He finds part of the answer in structural features of Indonesia’s political system that mean that local elites tend to share out the cake of political power – and the economic resources that come with it – rather than falling out murderously over it. Graeme MacRae and I Nyoman Darma Putra in ‘Not just an elite game ’ survey the last few years of local elections in Bali, explaining why the conventional view that electoral politics are dominated by entrenched elites does not fully hold true in the island. In ‘Winning the villages ’, Achmad Uzair Fauzan provides a contrasting view on how elections are won by taking a close look at village-level dynamics in Jepara, Central Java. The key, he finds, is that candidates need to be able to mobilise a strong network of local political operators. Finally, in ‘Purchasing power ’, Blair Palmer presents a piece by Indonesia Corruption Watch on how Indonesia’s system of formal reporting of campaign financing works. It turns out the system is an empty formality and that parties and candidates seriously under-report the financial support they receive to bankroll their campaigns. As a result, the public doesn’t know what debts are owed – and to whom – when politicians come to power.

Readers will note the striking images that accompany this edition. Special thanks go to Danu Primanto who took many of them. It’s not the first time that Inside Indonesia has used his beautiful photographs. Check out his flickr page . Finally, Inside Indonesia will be running more articles on electoral politics in coming weeks. Next in line is an article on the elections in Aceh, which saw a stunning victory for Partai Aceh, the party of the former separatists of the Free Aceh Movement.     ii

Edward Aspinall ( teaches and researches Indonesian politics at the Australian National University. He is also the coordinating editor of Inside Indonesia.

Inside Indonesia 97: Jul-Sep 2009

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