Partyforumseasia: With 240 million inhabitants, more than 13,000 islands, 300 native ethnic groups and 742 languages and dialects, stretching 5,000 km East to West, Indonesia’s national motto sounds suitable but difficult to achieve: “Unity in diversity“. By many different standards and criteria, the country may be the world champion in complexity. No wonder that the organization of Indonesia’s democratic system and elections is extremely complex as well. Like in many Southeast Asian countries money politics and vote-buying are far from unknown, on the contrary. Since the beginning of the democratic era after the fall of authoritarian President Suharto, huge amounts of money have been spent for securing a seat in parliament or other public office. Years ago already, the necessary budget for winning the governorship in an average province has been estimated at the equivalent of ten million USD!
Beside the development of an increasingly professional polling industry, demand has created rather professional jobs for people who know their constituency and the people living in it. They can tell the candidate who they decide to work for – and who can pay them – how many voters they can mobilize for her or him. What is mostly being done in other democracies in Europe by active party members, namely canvassing from street to street and door to door, has developed into a respectable profession in Indonesia.
While being realistic about the extent of direct vote-buying, Ulla Fionna from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore, has just published a fascinating insight into this flourishing business. Read in detail how these field coordinators (in Indonesian “koordinator lapangan” or “korlap” in the short form) have been instrumental in the 9 April elections:
Partyforumseasia: “State religions” have played important and decisive roles in European politics for centuries. Rulers have used religion as a powerful political tool. And churches have shown a great propensity to be close to the power holders, often in a cozy and successful symbiosis.
Only a few decades ago, Christian parties in Italy and Germany could rely on campaign support from their alliance with the church, especially on Sunday services before elections. Without necessarily naming the party, the priests would just say that a true believer should know where to mark the ballot paper. With urbanization and secularization the influence of churches and Christian parties has decreased. But the parties were also punished for relying too much on conservative and more religious rural constituencies and giving them more political weight than the cities.
In several Southeast Asian countries we witness developments in the opposite direction. In Malaysia and Indonesia where Islam is dominant anyway, religion is often used as a campaign tool. In a negative way by casting doubts on the religious credentials of candidates, in the worst case by alleging that they are covert Christians like in the case of presidential front runner Joko Widodo. But last week Muhammdiyah leader Din Syamsuddin revealed that he had “tested” Jokowi by asking him to lead a Friday prayer. Result: “It was all correct”. So the members of this Muslim mass organization can trust that Jokowi is a sufficiently pious Muslim. Muhammadiyah (30 million members) and Nahdlatul Ulama (40 million members) have declared that they won’t officially support any of the candidates, but in a country which is seeing a split between pious (santri) and possibly more lukewarm (abangan) Muslims, 70 million potential voters cannot be neglected.
In Malaysia, probably more than in Indonesia, the Islamic agenda in politics is frightening non-Muslim minorities. The introduction of Hudud laws is one of the most controversial issues in the ongoing political debates, fueled recently by their introduction in Brunei. Hindu, Christian and other minorities are concerned that amputations and stoning might be applied to them as well, though they are certainly hard to apply within a predominantly secular legal system. See details in an essay by Mohammad Alami Musa, “Hudud and Inter-Religious Relations” from the Rajaratnam School of International Sudies.( Link )
Playing the religious card in politics can be dangerous. If overdone it opens the Pandora’s box of fanaticism and intolerance. Both, unfortunately, are not unknown in Southeast Asia.
Partyforumseasia: 169 out of 560 seats in the outgoing Indonesian Parliament or 30.1% for four of the five Islamic parties are not a bad result at first glance. Under a different angle, in relation to more than 200 million Muslims among the 237 million Indonesians, they might have done better. For the upcoming elections, though, the polls predict not more than 22 %. Why are they so (relatively) weak?
The biggest factor may be that they are competing against each other and don’t get direct support from the two huge religious mass organizations Muhammdiyah (founded in 1912) and Nahdlatul Ulama (founded in 1926). Together these Muslim movements have 70 million members but decided to stay out of party politics this time.
Other factors are corruption scandals which demolished the pretended moral superiority. Politicians with religious credentials turned out to be as vulnerable to money politics as all the others and didn’t perform better when they held public office. And last but not least, the mainstream parties are promising enough bread and butter improvements which the splintered Islamic parties can’t guarantee even if some of them should make it into a government coalition as junior partners.
But religion is still playing a rather important role in the public sphere of the Republic of Indonesia. Hope bearer Joko Widodo is carefully integrating it into his campaign.
For more details see Straits Times, Singapore, 28 March 2014 (boxes)
Partyforumseasia: For a good overview of the twelve parties competing in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections we strongly recommend the following paper by Ulla Fionna and Alex Arifianto in ISEAS Perspectives, #14, 2014, 10 March 2014.