Indonesian Vote Colored by Corruption Fatigue and a Fresh Face

By Saw Yan Naing 9 April 2014

JAKARTA — Tens of millions of Indonesians nationwide went to the polls on Wednesday to cast their ballots in parliamentary elections, with the vote coming ahead of a July presidential election in which the yet-to-be-chosen lawmakers will play a crucial role.

With some 186 million eligible voters nationwide, the electorate of the world’s third-largest democracy has indicated in opinion polls leading up to Wednesday’s election that voters are looking for a departure from past governments that have appeared unwilling, or unable, to curb the corruption for which Indonesia is notorious.

After speaking to more than a dozen Indonesian citizens this week in the capital Jakarta, this reporter found that the pre-poll surveying appeared to be borne out in attitudes on the street.

“At first, I hesitated over whether to vote or not. But finally, I made up my mind—that I have to exercise my right to vote because it may be a good chance to push for change somehow,” said Arri Palapa, a 37-year-old resident of Jakarta who runs a small online business selling cosmetics. “I look at Indonesia and I’m sick of seeing Indonesia moving forward to nowhere.

“I think members of the PDI-P [Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle] have the potential to provide good leaders as role models for a better future for Indonesia. Jokowi is part of the PDI-P. He has been appointed by the PDI-P to be elected as president. So, I believe he can lead the party toward a better leadership,” said Palapa, who nonetheless declined to reveal which party he would be voting for on Wednesday.

Joko Widodo, better known by his nickname Jokowi, is the current governor of Jakarta and the frontrunner for the Indonesian presidency, which will be decided in July. He is not running for any elected seat in Wednesday’s poll.

The Indonesian president is directly elected, but only after being nominated by parties in the legislature, which must win at least 20 percent of seats outright, form a coalition representing that percentage of seats won, or have taken 25 percent of seats in the previous election, in order to put forward a presidential candidate. That means the political fate of the wildly popular governor of Jakarta is tied to the results of Wednesday’s elections.

Jokowi’s down-to-earth approach has won the hearts of many voters in the Indonesia capital, and far beyond, in this archipelagic nation. His popularity led his party, the PDI-P, to announce in mid-March that he would be its candidate for the presidency.

This reporter met with Jokowi last month in Jakarta, where the governor said he preferred spending his time among constituents, not bound to his desk in the chaotic metropolis of some 10 million people.

“Many people have said that I’m different because the other governors, they like to stay at the office. For me, I stay at the office only a maximum of one hour [per day],” Jokowi said. “Mostly, I go to see people on the ground, in the markets, and I ask people what they want and what they need. The people, they want to see leaders working.”

That approach has earned Jokowi major support at the grassroots level, from street vendors and buskers to activists and NGO workers. Born in the Central Java town of Solo, where he served as mayor from 2005-12, Jokowi has put a focus on health care and education programs for the needy in the 18 months since he assumed the Jakarta governorship.

“I delivered what we call ‘Jakarta health cards’ [granting free medical care to the poor] to them. They can go to public clinics, they can go to the hospitals, totally free of charge. I worked out this program because people asked me for this when I met them.”

Jokowi said his administration has delivered the cards to 3.5 million people in Jakarta so far.

“We also have what we call ‘Jakarta smart cards.’ This is for education. When I would go to see the people and I asked about education, they asked the government to cover the cost of school uniforms, school vans, boots, shoes for the poor,” Jokowi explained.

Despite earning popular support on the coattails of the Jakarta governor, Jokowi’s PDI-P is not immune to the negative voter sentiment that has affected many of the established political parties in a country where corruption stories are a regular feature of newspapers’ front-pages.

Some voters said they would not vote for PDI-P candidates in Wednesday’s legislative elections, but would support Jokowi in the presidential election to follow on July 9.

“I didn’t vote today because I don’t trust the parties, including PDI-P. But I trust Jokowi. … The PDI-P is one of the most corrupt parties,” said Feri Latief, a self-employed Jakarta resident.

Twelve parties are contending for 560 seats in Indonesia’s House of Representatives, and the two most popular parties are PDI-P and Golkar Party, the former political vehicle of deposed Indonesian President Suharto. Although Golkar is expected to win a sizeable number of legislative seats, its presidential standard-bearer, party chairman Aburizal Bakrie, is showing poorly in the polls. The business tycoon was Golkar’s declared presidential candidate long before Jokowi threw his hat into the ring, but polls have showed the Jakarta governor holding as much as a 34 percentage point lead over Bakrie.

The results of Wednesday’s nationwide election will be disclosed within a week. Indonesia’s current president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, will officially leave office in October.

The Irrawaddy reporter Saw Yan Naing is a fellow of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), and this article is published under a SEAPA-sponsored program covering the 2014 Indonesian elections.