Friday, April 03, 2009

If Voting Changed Anything, They'd Make It Illegal

Well folks, President Obama may have beaten an unlikely path to the White House but that’s not the end of election fever by any means. Indonesia will be holding its own national elections on April 9th and, as you can hardly have failed to notice if you're a Jakarta resident, campaigning is now underway in earnest.

My own admittedly not very sharply honed political instincts tell me that incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is a shoe in for reelection. In the decade since the fall of Suharto's New Order regime, Indonesia has changed leaders perhaps more times than is strictly necessary. Gathering economic storm clouds and a distinct lack of any credible Obama-esque candidate shouting, "Ya! Kita Bisa!" (Yes, we can!) are also playing into SBY's hands. The President's Democratic Party is rising in the polls as a result and a desire for stability will probably win the day.

This year's election promises to be more democratic than either of Indonesia's two previous post-Suharto elections as for the first time, people will be voting for local constituency candidates as opposed to just a party. No longer will party leaders be able to install whichever unctious political hacks that they feel like in parliament. This is an advance for sure.

You've probably seen campaign stickers and poster plastered all over town, generally making a mess of the city's already less than pristine streets and residential areas. This time around though, there are none of the carnivalesque parades of trucks crammed with party supporters waving banners and flags that there were in 1999. This is in large part due to the disappointment felt by the electorate with the glacially slow pace of change during the reform era. Anticorruption initiatives have finally been able to gain a bit of traction under SBY, however the sense of apathy and torpor felt by the electorate just at the moment is palpable.

So, for the first time since helmsman Suharto was at the reigns, Indonesia looks set to re-elect an incumbent president; for the first time ever in fact as the Suharto elections can hardly be said to count! This time around, there are a dizzying 34 contesting parties. Clearly many of these parties (The Vanguard Party anyone?) are going to emerge hugely disappointed on April 10th but that's politics for you.

As some bright spark once remarked, "Politicians are like diapers. They both need changing regularly and for the same reason." I’d have to concur with this assessment, especially if taken as a judgement on the carpet-bagging, nest-feathering rabble currently sitting in the MPR and DPR (or, more often, not sitting there at all as many of them don't even bother to turn up to debates and votes).

In fact, even pre-election opinion polls are not to be trusted. Apparently some parties have been creating doctored polls projecting results that they want to see in order to convince undecided voters that they are in fact popular and worth a vote. Bah humbug. This hardly bodes well for clean governance now does it?

By the way, anyone interested in the current political bun fight may wish to point their browser at This fascinating English-language blog contains the latest lowdown on the countdown to April 9th.

We’ll leave the last word this month to grizzled US journalist Charles Krauthammer, who once said that, “Every two years the American politics industry fills the airwaves with the most virulent, scurrilous, wall-to-wall character assassination of nearly every political practitioner in the country - and then declares itself puzzled that America has lost trust in its politicians.” Are there parallels to be drawn here with Indonesia’s current mud slinging campaign perhaps?