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INDONESIA POLLS: Policies take a back seat in battle of personalities

Publication Date : 07-04-2014

 

Outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has called on the leading presidential hopeful, Joko Widodo, to address public concerns about his ability to lead if elected.

Dr Yudhoyono's remarks, in a YouTube interview last Saturday, were reported on the Cabinet Secretariat website yesterday and echoes a theme that has run throughout the campaign that just concluded: Popularity aside, what are Joko's plans for his country?

Joko's main rival, Gerindra Party's Prabowo Subianto, has accused Joko of being a puppet who will do his master's bidding.

Joko has responded by saying he is the "people's puppet". That comeback is a reflection of the three-week general election campaign, which ended on Saturday, as a whole - big on personalities and short on policy details.

There were also plenty of attacks on the outgoing administration for a lack of leadership and corruption, as well as a flurry of campaign promises.

Absent was any real cut and thrust on whose programmes serve Indonesia best.

Calling on Joko, known as Jokowi, and others to debate policies, Dr Yudhoyono said: "Voters will be able to decide who is the best person to be president after my term ends."

Dr Yudhoyono's term ends on Oct 20, and the outcome of Wednesday's general election will determine which parties or group of parties get at least 20 per cent of seats or 25 per cent of the votes to field a pairing for the July 9 presidential poll.

Observers have also lamented this lack of serious debate on issues.

Of course, the focus on personalities is not confined to Indonesian politics. Around the world, omnipresent TV coverage and social media feed off the pulling power of key figures, and can eclipse policy discussions.

While observers acknowledge that this may be what voters want, they say that 16 years and four elections after the era of strongman Suharto, a more educated populace deserves more from their politicians, given the challenges facing the country.

"Political campaigns should enlighten national life and be dignified," Professor Ikrar Nusa Bhakti of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences wrote in the leading daily Kompas on Saturday. "Various forms of negative campaigning should have been replaced by a campaign that competes on programmes."

Parties like the PDI-P and Gerindra tend to adopt a more nationalist tone on issues, and Golkar and the Democrats portray themselves as the party of the middle ground, but in reality, when it comes to policies, there are few sharp ideological distinctions between them.

Dr Hui Yew-Foong, coordinator of the Indonesia Studies Group at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, says rather than building up and promoting platforms on various issues, parties have focused on getting electable candidates to get more votes.

"In order to attract voters and alienate as few as possible, most parties have adopted rather centrist positions, such that what differentiates them would be the political personalities that they have become identified with," he told The Straits Times.

Like the PDI-P and Gerindra, the bulk of campaign ads for Golkar zoom in on its presidential aspirant Aburizal Bakrie, while the Democrat Party often highlights the achievements of President Yudhoyono.

Agus Herta Sumarto of think-tank United Data Centre (PDB) says parties deliberately avoid touching policy issues, as these could invite attacks from opponents on their spotty record.

"It is better to talk about how their top leaders are honest and are close to the people," he told The Straits Times.

To be fair, all 12 parties competing for seats in the national Parliament and local assemblies make general pledges to improve the economy and lift the lot of the country's poorest.

But these remain vague, and stay away from going into tough questions such as the need to cut fuel subsidies so that more funds can go to improving education, health care and, especially, infrastructure.

But some warn that a focus on personalities could also result in other unworthy candidates getting elected on their coat-tails.

Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) deputy secretary-general Fahri Hamzah said last week: "Extremely popular politicians who have achieved cult status among their supporters open the door for legislative candidates with questionable track records to be elected."

 

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