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Democracy is precious and expensive, but does it have to be so vulgar?

Publication Date : 11-05-2014


From the incredulous to the hilarious, the post-electoral fallout of the great democratic exercise in Indonesia on April 9 could fill a season’s worth of comedy scripts: the mad to the failed gone bad.

In Kampung Baru, Bone, South Sulawesi, a father blocked a frequently used local road because his son was predicted to fail to win a seat in the provincial legislature.

In Parepare, also in South Sulawesi, a failed council candidate from the Democratic Party and his team began confiscating kitchen stoves they had “donated” to residents because the candidate failed to gain enough votes for the local council.

As one resident innocently put it: “I did vote for him, but my wife voted for someone else because we also received donations from other candidates...So we spread the vote to be fair”.

A foundation in Polewali Mandar, West Sulawesi, shut down several schools it had run because its benefactor failed in the district election.

Another failed candidate in Sindang Jati, Bengkulu, actually went back to residents carrying a firearm, demanding they return money that had been distributed during his campaign.

Residents of Amorome village in Southeast Sulawesi fought off attempts to repossess 18 cows that had been provided three months prior by the local Transmigration Agency.

As reported by Kompas, residents suspect the confiscation was a direct result of the minimal votes received by Jefri Prananda, son of the Transmigration Agency head, at the village polling station.

From East Java, four days after the election, the Dzikrussyifa' Asma’ Berojomusti religious boarding school revealed that it was treating no fewer than 40 failed candidates for stress and depression.

Similar reports have emerged elsewhere. The psychiatric ward in the local WZ Johannes General Hospital in Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara, said it was treating at least two failed legislators.

Modern politics is an expensive enterprise. The same way the liberal market requires investment in time, effort and resources, so does the democratic political system.

The budget allocated for the General Elections Commission (KPU) stands at about 15.4 trillion (US$1.35 billion) to run the elections. This is of course outside the funds distributed by the 15 political parties and the personal pockets of 19,600 candidates who contested the election.

To put that in perspective, the government allocated 18.8 trillion rupiah to provide 15 kilograms of free rice per month to 15.5 million poor families in 2014.

Bank Indonesia (BI) director for economic and monetary policy, Solihin Juhro, estimates these funds had minimal impact on the growth of the economy.

“It’s not as strong as we had estimated. We predicted it would be around 0.2 to 0.3 per cent, but we’ve revised it to just 0.1 per cent,” he said.

These are flabbergasting statistics, which may lead some to question the value of the election or at least fertilise political apathy among the people.

But comparatively to other democracies — factoring the size of the electorate, geography and number of contenders — Indonesia’s election was run on an astute budget.

Indonesia is the world’s third-largest liberal democracy after India and the United States. Both countries, in terms of logistics, do not have the archipelagic challenge of distributing ballots across thousands of islands.

In 2008, the congressional and presidential election in the United States ran on a budget of $5.2 billion. It rose four years later to $6.2 billion.

India’s current election was estimated to cost $5 billion.

Hence, the problem is not the election itself but the quality of its output and the vulgarity that has emerged in vote-buying.

Money politics has been around for many elections. But its crudeness seems to have reached a new low.

It the past there was a subtlety in the practice. Now it’s a service transaction.

Based on People’s Voters Education Network (JPPR) observations in the vicinity of 1,005 polling stations they observed in 25 provinces, flagrant violations of “money politics” occurred in 33 percent of them.

“It’s very open with envelopes, cash, insurance schemes,” said JPPR deputy coordinator Masykurudin Hafidz. The most common modus would be providing various material “‘gifts” with a cost of up to 200,000 rupiah each.

“People have come to expect it,” he lamented.

One reason for this is probably the open competition with other parties and battles between same-party candidates. A brawl for the highest bidder.

Eva Sundari, an outgoing legislator for the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), said this change in the voting system had vitalised money politics.

“When it was a [proportional representation] closed list system in 2004 there was no money politics. In 2009 when it was opened up, the money politics began. Now it’s even worse!” she said.

Some have described money as pollution to the democratic system. But there no perfect system anticipates contamination. The open list system was adopted as a solution to the monopolising of political parties, so legislators would be more accountable to voters rather than the party.

Our best hope is arguably not an overhaul of the political system but to professionalise the political parties: candidates who look at politics as a long term profession, rather than a gamble.

Let’s also cease our naivete by lauding politics as a non-transactional endeavor. That those who enter should be prophets free from want, ego or ambition.

There’s no easy solution to raising the quality of elections, but we should not lose hope that our 15 trillion rupiah investment will produce a new legislature and government that can carry us for the next five years.
US$1:11,507.5 rupiah

(The writer is chief editor of The Jakarta Post.)


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