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A sedate campaign

Publication Date : 25-03-2014


The search for MH370 has turned politics, our great national obsession, into a side-show. Indeed, no one is too concerned with either the Kajang or Balingian by-elections.

But Malaysians aren’t the only Southeast Asians who are increasingly turned off by politics. Down south, in Indonesia, with legislative elections in full-swing, the mood is desultory at best.

This is odd: shouldn’t elections in the world’s third-largest democracy be an earth-shattering affair? Well… no. Having followed elections there since 1999, I have been struck by how lacklustre it’s all been in the run-up to the campaign season.

Indeed, the greatest threat to Indonesia now is not that it will “fall apart” so much as that the Republic will just “fall asleep” as a growing disenchantment with democracy prompts more and more people to switch off. Years of corruption and in-fighting may well have hindered democracy’s cause.

If Indonesia’s House of Represent­atives (DPR) were a sinetron drama, it would have been cancelled years ago. So, as politicians hit the ground, with the embattled Democrats kicking off their campaign in East Java and PDI-P starting theirs in Jakarta, voters appeared to have switched channels - as one of the country’s leading TV journalists said to me: “Dangdut: Yes! Politikus: No!”.

To be fair, legislative candidates all over the world have been having a hard time; no one likes hordes of would-be legislators banging on your door at all hours, asking for votes.

Still, there are dramatic interludes like the intrigue preceding Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo’s (“Jokowi”) appointment as PDI-P’s presidential candidate. But with that over, can we expect any more surprises?

Also, political junkies (like myself) are curious to see how former general Prabowo Subianto’s party Gerindra’s amazing, and extraordinarily expensive, blitzkrieg-like TV advertising campaign will pan out. Will the serang udara (aerial attacks) deliver votes? Certainly, the controversial Prabowo – currently running #2 in the polls – is now directing his wrath at PDI-P and Jokowi with equal measure.

Given the stakes involved with the 2014 polls – essentially nothing less than a transition of power from the hesitant general-turned-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his Democratic Party – the lack of interest is all the more unusual.

But as I checked with friends on the ground over the week, the mood isn’t uniformly bleak. Some provinces are less “switched off” than others.

I started by ringing around the two most populous provinces of East and West Java. The response from East Java was startling. In the great Islamist group the Nahdlatul Ulama’s redoubt, I soon realised that many voters there were seriously considering going “golput”, or abstaining and staying home on election day. They also appeared unmoved by Jokowi’s entry into the presidential race.

Nugroho, a 57-year-old worker in Sidoarjo, said: “I’m going golput because it’s shameful how the legislative candidates have been going around promising inducements to voters even before the campaign period started.”

Arief, a 31-year-old garbage collector in Ponorogo, told me: “Leg­islative elections are a waste of time because nothing will change. However, there’s still hope with the presidential election.”

Voters in East Java are apparently caught between tedium and apathy.However, voter sentiment in West Java is the exact opposite with the Sundanese displaying a greater fervour for democracy and quite a number revealing a pro-Jokowi slant.

In Tasikmalaya, Ani Sopia, a 31-year-old English teacher, said: “I’m looking forward to the elections, but I haven’t decided on who I should vote for. If Jokowi is running for president he will have my vote.”

However, Rini Maria, a 35-year-old housewife from Cirebon said: “I’m not too enthusiastic for the legislative elections and I don’t even know when they’re taking place. Still, I’d vote for Prabowo as president. He has the stature and firmness to run the country.”

So whilst Jokowi’s nomination has injected a note of drama into an otherwise dull campaign, more attention must be paid towards boosting the turnout rate of Indonesia’s 186.6 million voters.

After all, democracy is only meaningful if most – if not all – of its people participate at every level. You could say the same thing for Malaysian voters!


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