Behind Indonesia’s Political Party Labels, a Lack of Substance

Prabowo Subianto rides his horse into a campaign rally for the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) on Sunday. (JG Photo/Afriadi Hikmal)

Prabowo Subianto rides his horse into a campaign rally for the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) on Sunday. (JG Photo/Afriadi Hikmal)

Jakarta. The constellation of parties competing in next month’s legislative election appears to run the gamut of the political spectrum, from nationalist to populist to Islamic conservative. But dig a little deeper beneath the labels, analysts say, and the truth is that there is very little to distinguish any of the 12 parties vying for votes.

Five ostensibly Islamic parties are taking part in the elections, but their message espousing conservative values to gird the democratic system is virtually identical. The same goes for the seven other parties, all of which profess to be nationalist or populist, but which essentially hew to a conservative agenda while loudly proclaiming to look out for rakyat kecil — the little guy.

“Many parties try and fail to win the people’s hearts because they lack effective programs and policies, and they have no ideological distinction from any other party,” says Yunarto Wijaya, the executive director of Charta Politika, a think tank.

With nothing to distinguish them from their rivals, he says, the parties have long engaged in popularity contests, pitting one charismatic figure against another.

“People judge the parties based on the popular figures in it,” Yunarto says.

For the opposition Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), he says, those figures are Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, its presidential candidate popularly known as Jokowi, and Megawati Soekarnoputri, its longtime chairwoman.

“Similarly, they see the Democratic Party as being owned by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and Hanura as Wiranto’s,” Yunarto says, referring to the Hanura chairman and presidential candidate.

This system of parties competing on their candidates’ personality rather than on the pressing issues facing the country have undermined the quality of Indonesia’s democracy, Yunarto argues.

He says that by banking on their presidential candidates to help draw in the votes for the legislative election, the parties are hampering voter education and keeping people inured to the system of cult worship that has long proved effective at the ballot box. As a result, he says, voters end up choosing any candidate on the ballot, regardless of their qualifications or track record, as long as they’re from the same party as the cult figure.

“This ruins the hope that the public can grow to become rational voters, and that’s why amendments to the electoral law need to be made,” he says.

‘Everything that’s bad’

Arbi Sanit, a political analyst at the University of Indonesia, agrees that the democratic system in the country will never improve if inept legislators continue being elected to the House of Representatives.

“Everything that’s bad exists at the House, from corruption and indecisiveness, to illegal projects, laziness and scandals,” he says.

“Since the reform era began in 1998, legislators have strengthened their grip on state institutions” in bid-rigging scams and other shakedowns, he adds.

“Such problems have now spread from the House to places like the Constitutional Court,” Arbi says.

He adds he is skeptical that next month’s election will bring about any positive change for Indonesia, given that the majority of House legislators are seeking re-election. He likens many of them to the Mafia, alleging that once ensconced in the House, they conspire to build networks through which they benefit financially, often illicitly.

“We can’t prevent the current legislators from seeking re-election. All we can do is leave it to the public to judge the true performance of the legislators,” Arbi says.

Yunarto says legislation exists — the 2009 law on legislatures — that would allow the House to crack down on the dozens of absentee, underperforming, corrupt or plain inept legislators elected five years ago, but that enforcement has been virtually nonexistent.

“The law, which gives the House control over its own members and budget, must be revised to set tougher sanctions against naughty politicians who are often absent [from meetings], who show lack of transparency in their reports, who engage in under-the-table deals with people from outside the House, and who have failed to meet the targets to pass bills into laws,” he says.

“A new law for political parties is urgently needed. If we can enforce those rules, it would force the legislators to clean up their acts.”

Transactional politics

Yunarto says one of the more dire consequences of the system of political cult worship is that it leaves the parties without an obvious figurehead scrambling to align themselves in coalitions of convenience — what he terms “transactional politics.”

“Voters have long witnessed how legislative candidates and political parties engage in political transactions,” he says.

“The PDI-P has announced Jokowi as its presidential candidate, while Hanura has declared Wiranto and Hary Tanoesoedibjo” — a media mogul and one of Indonesia’s wealthiest individuals — “as its presidential and vice presidential candidates. Other political parties that don’t have a strong figure to nominate as a presidential candidate will wind up in a political transaction.”

With a host of larger-than-life personalities eyeing the presidency this year, including business tycoon Aburizal Bakrie from the Golkar Party and former Special Forces commander Prabowo Subianto from the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), Yunarto predicts a campaign season where the mudslinging, vote-buying and other campaign violations will be more blatant and more intense than in previous elections.

“A large number of people, mostly women from low- to middle-income households, are being mobilized to participate in campaign rallies. And when these housewives are getting paid some Rp 50,000 to Rp 100,000” — $4.40 to $8.80 — “to participate in a campaign rally, they will inevitably bring their children,” he says, pointing out that the involvement of minors in campaign activities is a violation of the law.

Cash and food handed out at campaign rallies have also become a staple of such events, to the extent that “such thinking has brought our democracy to the brink of collapse because people will only vote for those who bribe them,” Yunarto says.

“Also, you see countless banners put up in zones prohibited by the poll organizers, and countless campaign ad violations in the media. But there’s a lack of law enforcement or political will to condemn the violations.” The Jakarta Globe

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