Monday, August 13, 2007

Choice 2007

Well, it's Wednesday and as I write this I've been given the day off work due to the Jakarta governor's election, so at least some good has come out of the whole process. Main contenders Fauzi Bowo and Adang Daradjatun have been locked in a titanic struggle of ludicrous sloganeering, a citywide campaign of poster and sticker vandalism, in order to secure a winning proportion of the approximately 5 .7 million votes on offer. Why anyone would trust either of these guys to run anything more important than their own baths is quite beyond me but at least, for the first time, the city's residents have their own democratic say over who will continue to run the capital into the ground for the next few years.

As with the country's general elections, the campaigns haven't really been fought on any actual issues or dissemination of policies beyond the laughably hubristic slogans pasted up around town promising the earth and more. Mr Bowo's television commercials dispensed with any mention of either education, housing, transportation or environmental problems in favor of encouraging people to punch the ballot paper through his moustache (to the tune of the Indonesian version of Happy Birthday). In a recent televised debate between the two candidates, Mr Daradjatun, upon being presented with the opportunity to ask his rival a question, inquired about... yes, you've guessed it... his moustache. Personally, if I had the opportunity to vote today I be sorely tempted to take the ballot paper home and use the thing as a dartboard instead of merely punching a hole through the luxuriant foliage of Mr Bowo's upper lip at the polling station.

Democratic process should be about questioning politicians hard about their beliefs and plans so that one can make a meaningful choice about where to cast one's vote. Indonesians, since the fall of Soeharto, have enjoyed a free and fair choice in national and local elections but one that, as yet, hasn't been all that meaningful. Politicians and party leaders have sat in their ivory towers whilst their supporters have danced around the streets waving gaily colored banners like so many football supporters." Support my team!" they scream," No! Support my team!" But why? What do you stand for? About the only issue that has emerged to differentiate the parties from each other is that of secularity versus religion (for religion read Islam) and to me that is quite depressing.

I've often thought though, that democracy conflicts with Indonesian culture at some deeper level. Democracy is largely predicated upon politicians calling each other liars and fighting tooth and claw for every vote. It's about our leaders ripping into each other and insisting that their rivals' figures just don't add up. This is how policies and issues become clear to the voting public. However, this country's polite, genuflecting, consensual culture is perhaps in fundamental conflict with the wars of words required of a healthy democracy. Certainly I find it hard to imagine Indonesia producing anything like the jeering, sarcastic rabble that you see in the British Parliament. Better a jeering, sarcastic rabble though than backroom deals and unctuous, inscrutable smiles. Maybe things are, very slowly, changing here, but it's a difficult transition.

To be fair though, the hollow sloganeering of politicians is a problem for democracies the world over in our media soundbite age. Promises to create full employment, end all traffic jams or provide free health care and schooling (as Mr Daradjatun has done) are by no means unique to Indonesia. Politicians have to be seen to be of firm backbone and show strength. They have to answer the questions put to them on their campaigns with unwavering certainty. But to be so certain ignores the crucial value of doubt. Doubt can be a positive thing; it can reveal openness to possibility which in turn can lead to opportunity.

Instead of any rational doubt though, voters the world over are instead bombarded with hollow rhetoric and promises that cannot possibly be kept. The result of this is that nobody believes in campaign promises and the result of this is a general disparaging of politics in the population. This means voter apathy and the vast ocean of indifference that we've seen in the current Jakarta campaign or in the USA where voter turnout has often struggled around the 50% mark.

How refreshing it would be to have heard one of the Jakarta candidates holding forth thus in the last few weeks:

-Well, clearly our city is a big, complex mess and there's no point in promising to fix in five years what will probably take 50 years and a lot more money than I have at my disposal to put right. However, with this in mind, I promise to study how our budget can be used most efficiently and for maximum impact and will form a team to take a coolheaded, objective and above all, open look at the important issues. In addition, my facial hair will at no point be allowed to detract from the seriousness of this contest and to this end I have decided to have my mustache ritually shaved, burnt and the ashes scattered from the boatway into the Ciliwung River to the accompaniment of Happy Birthday.

Now that would be someone worth voting for.