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Indonesia’s Election Activists Fight to End Money Politics

January 22, 2014

Asia Foundation 60th anniversary seriesBy the end of President Yudhoyono’s term, for the first time, Indonesians will have witnessed their first 10-year stretch of both democracy and stability. While there is no shortage of criticism of what democracy has yet to achieve, the last 10 years have proven a commitment to what the overwhelming majority of citizens believe is the best form of government.

Electoral democracy has solid support and trust in the world’s third largest democracy, as confirmed by The Asia Foundation’s 2013 “Survey of Voter Knowledge, Attitude, and Practices.” The survey, which included 2,760 respondents in six provinces, reveals that 98 percent and 86 percent of voters believed presidential and legislative elections, respectively, were important – with a significant portion of them considering these elections to be “very important.”

While Indonesians are clearly keen on the idea of electoral democracy, they remain extremely critical of the main players: political parties and officials. This is due in part to the fact that most parties seem disinterested in making meaningful connections with their constituents. But of far greater significance is the rising number of corruption cases involving public officials and senior party representatives. Leaders of executive and legislative branches have had their share of headlines, as the country’s potent anti-corruption agency successfully investigated rampant corruption. Offenders – who include high and low ranking, male and female, and local and national officials – are paraded daily before the cameras and make headlines in Indonesia’s boisterous media. They come from both religious and nationalist leaning parties. In short, it is widespread and extensive. Corruption is likened to a plague corroding Indonesia.

It is interesting, and reassuring, that despite having been betrayed by more than a handful of democratically elected officials, Indonesians seem to continue to put their faith in elections. Elections continue to be used to reward and punish elected officials, as citizens install and uninstall politicians from office. But as Indonesians keep their faith in elections, they do so while maintaining a critical relationship to political parties. Exit polls in past elections have shown that Indonesians vote for whomever they believe could do the job, with very little allegiance to political parties. In the 2009 elections, 65 percent of supporters of political parties that did not back the president’s bid for re-election voted for Yudhoyono instead of their parties’ candidates. Similarly, despite controlling 77 percent of seats in the local parliament, parties that supported the incumbent in the 2012 Jakarta gubernatorial elections managed to only secure 43 percent of the popular vote for their candidate – as the electorate installed challenger Joko Widodo to office. The Foundation’s survey suggests that this trend will continue in 2014 elections, as political party endorsement is not a significant factor (only 11 percent) in deciding which candidate they choose. Evidently, political parties have not been able to secure loyalty from their constituents.

With very little influence and a thin base of supporters, it is public knowledge that a number of political parties and candidates running for office have resorted to money politics to secure votes. Rather than running on fresh ideas and campaigning strategically, many competing parties have chosen to entertain voters with live music, free t-shirts, and even offering money. More than 35 percent of voters confessed that they, or their families, had experienced vote buying. With over 180 million registered voters, this amounts to a significant amount of cash – and in most cases, it is the responsibility of the candidates to raise funds, which, expectedly, are likely to come with strings attached. Further, when vote-buying alone has not been enough to secure votes, funds have been directed to the judiciary: no less than the chief justice of the Constitutional Court was arrested in October for allegedly swaying the results of elections to the benefit of candidates who financially benefited him.

Rampant corruption is at the forefront of voters’ minds as they enter this election year. Aware of this, various civil society organizations are focusing their efforts on reducing money politics to help ensure free and fair elections. Political parties and candidates will have to take into account that election activists have learned from past elections. They have worked with journalists to have a better grasp on the mechanics of money politics – and as a result of their collaboration, a series of investigative journalism pieces exposing corrupt practices in recent local elections which will be made public very soon. Learning from past elections, civil society organizations and media organizations have worked in tandem and devised better, innovative strategies to monitor elections. An unprecedented number of citizens have expressed interest in volunteering during elections. Indonesians are some of the most active social media users in the world, and civil society organizations are crafting apps and websites, such as www.matamassa.org, designed to document violations.

Indonesian civil society is not only fierce against corrupt politicians, but is also willing to work constructively to strengthen connections between voters, candidates, and ideas. They will be using tested fora such as old-fashioned community meetings, as well as websites (such as www.jariungu.com, www.ayovote.com, and www.rumahpemilu.org) to bring voters closer to their candidates. Candidates in 2014 elections have a wide variety of channels to reach out to voters, and a strong civil society that is willing to work with them to promote transparent, open elections. Rather than resorting to money politics, it will be wiser for candidates to use these initiatives. It is important for them to know that while voters seem to be blasé about receiving materials offered to them (with almost 40 percent said that they would accept the offer), 64 percent of them believe that candidates who get into office by distributing money will likely be corrupt officials.

Candidates for the 2014 elections would do well to follow the recent successful campaigns led by reform-minded politicians, including Bandung’s new mayor, Ridwan Kamil. In the past five years, in various gubernatorial and mayoral elections, voters have rewarded reform-minded politicians who run clean campaigns. Loud and clear they give their support to what many called “new breed of local politicians.” As polls suggest, Indonesians seem poised to give their votes to the candidates who offer hope and show signs of bringing about positive change to a country ready to move forward but plagued by corruption. It is time for politicians to meet us half way.

Sandra Hamid is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Indonesia. She can be reached at Sandra.hamid@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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