Elections, Indonesian-style

By Dr Farish A Noor (TheNutgraph)
WITH Umno’s heated polls just a week away and a transition of power in the pipeline for the nation, one other elections will soon grab the headlines. This April will witness the elections of Indonesia, the biggest Muslim country in the world, and Malaysia’s neighbour down south.

With a population that currently stands at 232 million people, the potential voter turnout for the Indonesian elections will be equally impressive, with 171 million eligible voters casting their votes for 39 political parties.
The constituencies are spread over 33 provinces and 471 regencies, with 77 major election districts where the votes will be cast across 582,217 polling stations. A total of 32,290 district polling committees will be set up, operated by 4,753,953 individuals acting as volunteers and polling staff.
The staggering figures alone make the upcoming by-elections in Kedah, Perak and Sarawak dwarf in comparison. Indonesia’s elections are no trifle matter.

Fears of violence

Already Indonesia’s political temperature is rising. On 14 March, party members and volunteers of the Partai Demokrat (Democrat Party) were attacked by thugs armed with spears, swords and machetes in Tabanan, Bali.
Bali is known to be the stronghold of the Partai Demokrasi Indonesia-Perjuangan (PDI-P) led by Megawati Soekarnoputri, and tension ran high as fears of communal violence spread across the island otherwise famed for its tourism.
Indonesia’s transition to a working democracy has perhaps been one of the most spectacular instances of bottom-up democratisation in Asia in the post-Cold War era. After the graceless fall of Suharto in May 1998, the Indonesian public — millions of whom were the inheritors of the reformasi struggle — worked hard to bring about a change to new politics.
Indonesia today has perhaps the freest media in all of Southeast Asia. Although some of the major vernacular dailies and private media channels are unabashedly partisan in supporting certain political leaders and parties, there is enough space in the public domain to accommodate a plethora of voices and perspectives. On a nightly basis, Indonesian television beam live transmissions of political debates over issues as diverse as economic recovery and the ban on smoking. Practically every politician, academic, activist and public intellectual is given the chance to air his or her opinion.
Horse-trading begins
But this expansion of the public domain has also been accompanied by an inflation of political parties and interest groups. At present, 39 major political parties are vying for the public’s vote. The horse-trading has started in earnest, and the latest shock was the public announcement of an instrumental tie-up between two of the biggest parties in the country, the PDI-P and Golkar.
Last week, PDI-P leader Megawati met with the current vice-president Jusuf Kalla of the Golkar (Golongan Karyawan) party to announce that they would work together in the elections to secure the posts of president and vice-president.
This was a major blow to the position and standing of current president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (known as SBY), who leads the Partai Demokrat. Overnight, the political equation changed with Jusuf Kalla’s public desertion of his former running mate.
But this also raises the thorny question of how the Megawati-Kalla alliance can be maintained till the July presidential elections for the simple reason that Megawati — having been president herself once— is not about to settle for the post of vice-president, and Jusuf Kalla — having been vice-president to SBY for the past five years — will not settle for second place either.
At present count, it is clear that SBY, Megawati and Kalla are the three most important contenders; and that the three parties — Partai Demokrat, PDI-P and Golkar — will be the three biggest forces in the upcoming parliamentary elections on 9 April 2009.
Islamist parties
Then comes the Islamist parties of Indonesia who seem shattered as a bloc but who will undoubtedly be influential once the parliamentary votes are counted.
The myriad Islamist parties in Indonesia reflect the diversity of Islamic views and perspectives held by the Indonesians themselves. Among the more prominent Islamist parties are the Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (PKS), known for its popular anti-corruption campaign and widely regarded as the cleanest party in all of Indonesia; the Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa, affiliated to Gus Dur and the traditionalist Nahdatul Ulama movement that numbers more than 40 million members; the Partai Amanah Negara, formerly led by the Muhammadiyah leader Amien Rais; the Partai Persatuan Pembangunan (PPP); Partai Bintang Reformasi; Partai Bulan Bintang; and Partai Matahari Bangkit.
While the PPP, led by Suryadarma Ali, has indicated that it too is willing to work with Golkar under Jusuf Kalla, the PKS under the leadership of Tifatul Sembiring has indicated that it is willing to side with SBY’s Partai Demokrat.
Clearly, while the secular giants on the political stage are battling it out among themselves for the prize of dominating the People’s Assembly, the Islamist parties are being courted in earnest to lend their support in the long race to the presidential palace.
What will this lead to in the end, following the parliamentary elections in April and the first round of the presidential selection in July? An instrumental coalition between a secular president and an Islamist vice-president? And if so, who will be the ones who will sit in that all-powerful seat in Jakarta?
Only time will tell, but one thing is certain: the race is on.