INDONESIA: As Poll Nears, Voters Bombarded With Promises

  • by Kafil Yamin (jakarta)
  • Tuesday, March 31, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

'All parties and presidential candidates talk about the same thing. They say they’re concerned about the poor. The problem is who is to be believed?' asked Zulkifli Saman, head of Lagadar village, West Java.

But many of the country’s 171.26 million voters may well be drawn by who they like, depending on candidates’ popularity, physical looks or even entertainment skills, when they go to national polls on Apr. 9.

For instance, there are candidates like actor and film producer Deddy Mizwar, who is set to challenge President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for the presidential post in the coming months. Singers of ‘dangdut’ or Indonesian popular folk music, such as Kristine and Evi Tamala, are running for legislative seats, as are comedians Didin Bagito and Komar. So are television mini-series stars like Ferry Irawan and Denada.

This continues a trend seen since the opening of Indonesia’s democratic climate after the end of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998. In the more open political arena in this country of 237 million people, actresses, actors, film producers, musicians and comedians have been seeking posts in legislative, regent or gubernatorial elections.

But behind the merriness and the colour of the election campaign are concerns about Indonesia’s problems, ranging from external debt pressure, weak foreign policies and day-to-day economic concerns at a time of global financial crisis.

'In their conscience, voters actually know what kind of leader they need. They want a leader who will be able to deal with their daily problems, like food, education, affordable medication,' said Lili Romli, a political analyst at the Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI).

'But the problem is, our voters are usually not independent-minded,' he added. 'They are easily persuaded with money, food donations and other forms of allure.'

There are 11,868 candidates vying for seats in this month’s elections, which are key because they determine which political parties can field candidates for the presidential elections on Jul. 8. That would be Indonesia’s third direct presidential vote since 1998.

Voters will also in effect be assessing the performance of the current president, whose popularity appears to have largely survived problems such as the arrest of his brother-in-law for corruption. Public opinion polls show that Yudhoyono remains the most popular candidate for president with 42.9 percent popularity, slightly above former president Megawati Sukarnoputri’s 40.7 percent.

There are five candidates shaping up for the presidential race. Apart from Yudhoyono of the Democrat Party and Megawati of the Indonesian Democracy Party-Struggle, there are retired general Wiranto of the People’s Conscience Mandate Party and Prabowo Subianto of the Grand Indonesia Movement party. Golkar, the Suharto-era ruling party, is undecided about who its candidate would be – current vice president Jusuf Kalla or Yogyakarta’s Sultan Hamengkubuwono.

Pro-poor promises are in fact not easy for politicians to keep once they are in office. Lili pointed out that Indonesian leaders want to undertake them, but 'they have often been challenged with foreign economic forces, and they have lost (to these)'.

'Indonesian leaders understand that lifting subsidies on basic items like food and fuel was not a pro-poor policy, but the past government did it anyway because the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank wanted it,' he said.

Key exports, such as palm oil, have also been affected by fluctuating international prices and did not deliver the income they were expected to bring in, adding to the country’s economic headaches.

For instance, Indonesia had aimed to become the world’s number one palm oil exporter by 2008, a policy that encouraged the conversion of large swathes of forest to oil palm plantations. Data at the Directorate General of the Plantation of the Agricultural Ministry show that at least 1.1 million hectares of forest were converted to oil palm plantations in the last two years.

In 2007, crude palm oil brought in 9.1 billion U.S. dollars, a surge by 5.1 billion dollars since 2005. But after the initial huge earnings, international prices collapsed. Since August 2008, they plunged to 400 dollars per tonne from 886 dollars per tonne in 2007. At home, the price of fresh oil palm fruit nosedived from 3,000 rupiah per kilogramme (25.7 cents) to 250 rupiah (2.14 cents), bringing misery to oil palm businessmen.

In response to skyrocketing food prices in 2008, Yudhoyono issued a decree imposing price controls on food items in February that year. Five days later, the government also reduced oil and electricity subsidies by 25 trillion rupiah (2.14 billion dollars) in an attempt to stabilise the volatile food prices. Subsidies on the two items at the time cost 108.8 trillion rupiah (9.33 billion dollars).

The money saved from this subsidy cut was used to lower the prices of food and other basic necessities. The government continues to struggle with how to ease the impact of the global financial crisis and draw in precious foreign investment.

Still, Yudhoyono deserves another term, says Muhammad Ramdhan Effendi of the At-Taibin Islamic boarding school in Cibinong, West Java. 'Look, he was confronted by big and complicated issues: tsunami, separatist movements, corruption – and he can handle them,' he said.

'He made good policies concerning the poor. When he found no other option but to increase fuel prices in 2005, he launched a cash grant scheme as compensation. And when international fuel process fell to 45 dollars per barrel, he also lowered fuel prices,' Effendi continued. 'Yes, there have been dissatisfaction here and there, but his policies are just right.'

Rizal Ramli, chairman of the Econit economic think tank, says Indonesia needs a leader who would be able to design and impose policies that strengthen domestic enterprises. 'Protective measures for small and medium enterprises at home would enable the people’s enterprises to grow stronger,' he said.

Lili says that given the current economic climate, it would be difficult for Indonesia to select leaders with radical programmes. 'Based on past elections, leaders with guts and capability to play on the same level as foreign interests, like Amien Rais, usually lose,' Lili said.

'Some figures who are critical of foreign exploitation in Indonesia, like Rizal Ramli and Kwik Kian Gie, could not even stay in power long,' he asserted. 'Foreign business powers did not like them. They invisibly joined the play to push such figures out of power,' Lili said.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

Where next?