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INDONESIA POLLS: Election fiesta of democracy at the presidential race

Publication Date : 13-07-2014


Wednesday’s presidential election lived up to the government’s billing of all polls as a “fiesta of democracy”. The day went peacefully although not necessarily free from fraud, and the mood across the nation was one of a truly festive nature.

Credit goes to the people that the day went without any report of violence, reaffirming Indonesia’s position as the third-largest democracy in the world.

Those who wanted to exercise their democratic rights were able to proceed without a hitch. And those who decided not to vote may have already checked themselves into hotels in Singapore or Bali.

The election may have ended inconclusively after both candidates, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Prabowo Subianto, claimed they were the real victors. There were moments of tension, particularly between diehard supporters, but these were largely confined to a war of harsh words conducted mostly through television or social media.

At the grassroots level, the festive mood prevailed across the country. Only the fact that the election fell during the month of Ramadan prevented the day from turning into a nationwide community picnic.

In the April legislative election, it was not uncommon for neighbours to organise potlucks. With plenty of food and drink to go around, they waited until the completion of vote tallying and cheered each time their party or candidate received a vote.

This time around, there was no food or drink in predominantly Muslim areas, but people still hung around nevertheless. There was no better time to kill the long hours waiting for the breaking of the fast at sunset to chat with your neighbours.

For many, election days are a rare chance to reconnect with neighborus, especially in busy Jakarta, where the sense of community has practically disappeared. The neighbourly gatherings inevitably lead to the exchange of gossip, giving you a glimpse into the ideological leanings of people in your own community.

Here is a conversation that took place among a group of women gathered outside a polling station in South Jakarta on Wednesday.

“Have you voted yet? Show me your pinky,” asked one to another who seemed to be greeting everyone at the gate.

“No. I am still confused. I am still asking around. I’ll go with the winner,” came the response. Her husband apparently ran the polling station.

“Go with number one. He’s handsome.”

“No. Go with number two. He is a much nicer person.”

Soon the conversation moved to questions about children or grandchildren as well as the rising prices of food. It wasn’t clear how she voted in the end, but the number two candidate took this largely middle-class neighbourhood by a large margin.

One foreign observer who visited several polling stations in Jakarta on Wednesday described the election as truly a community affair, noting that volunteers from within each neighborhood helped administer the votes and the tabulating.

In India, the world’s largest democracy, elections were administered by full-time officers. No wonder it takes them weeks to complete the elections as they move from one state to another. India could learn a thing or two from Indonesia — that by getting the community involved in running the polling stations, a considerable amount of time and money could be saved.

The term “fiesta of democracy” was first coined during the Soeharto years, although for the three decades that he ruled this country, there was nothing democratic about the elections that his regime ran.

In his era of “floating mass” politics, the fiesta was reflected by the mobilisation of people to attend campaign rallies, enjoy dangdut music shows and listen to boring speeches. The Golkar Party, Soeharto’s election machinery, won every single election by a huge margin.

Today, “fiesta of democracy” has taken on the real meaning of both words. The elections in 1999, 2004, 2009 and this year have all lived up to the democratic billings, to the point that no one could predict the outcome. The same goes for the hundreds of local elections held to elect governors, mayors and regency heads.

This year’s presidential election admittedly has polarised the nation almost down to the middle. There are stories of family feuds, marriages or couples breaking up over disagreements over which candidate to vote for.

On social media, where a lot of the campaign is being waged by both sides, there are stories of people “unfriending” their Facebook friends and “unfollowing” others on Twitter. The social media, an almost unregulated medium in spite of the 2008 Cyber Law, see some of the worst aspects of free-for-all, anything-goes, electioneering. But whether they have a real impact on voters’ decision is questionable.

Kudos to the police and the Indonesian Military (TNI) for keeping their pledge of neutrality.

Police were out on the streets in full force on Wednesday night to ensure peace and order as both camps went out to celebrate their election victory. They weren’t that wrong. It was a night to celebrate the victory of the people.

The show of force by the TNI on the eve of election day, including the low-flying jetfighters over Jakarta, presumably was intended to send clear signals that the TNI would remain neutral but would not tolerate any violence.

The threats of a violent breakout remains, but much depends on the two presidential candidates. Let’s hope common sense prevails and that they are not going to jeopardize their own people and democracy only to fulfill their power ambitions.

Let’s not spoil the party.


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