Parliamentary Elections in Indonesia

Election Carnival in the Island Republic

In the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, Islamic parties play a small but decisive role, as Christina Schott reports from Yogyakarta

photo: Christina Schott
In Indonesia an election campaign has little to do with manifestos and everything to do with carnival: supporters of the Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-P) in Yogyakarta

​​The southern assembly square in the central Javan sultanate capital of Yogyakarta is entirely immersed in red. Despite the sweltering heat, an ocean of flags is surging in front of the stage, on which two female pop singers are gyrating their hips. The rickshaw driver Gandung swings his impressive paunch ecstatically to and fro to the beat, cooled by a spray of water from a hose.

His red and white T-shirt identifies him as a supporter of the Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-P), one of the three nationalist parties that dominate politics in the country with the largest Muslim population in the world.

"Why should I vote for an Islamic party?" asks the Muslim. "They send us to the mosque when we have nothing to eat. The politicians are all as corrupt as each other. But the PDI-P takes the best care of us little people."

No majority for Islamic parties to date

Many of the 171 million voters in the world's third-largest democracy think along similar lines to Gandung. The Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI) predicts that all Islamic parties together will receive only 23 percent of votes at the parliamentary elections on 9 April.

More pessimistic surveys come to only 15 percent – whereas the last election five years ago saw them gain 38 percent. "Islamic parties have never gained a majority in the entire history of democratic elections in Indonesia. The most important things for voters here are bread-and-butter issues, and they seem to consider non-Islamic parties more competent in these areas," explains LSI spokesman Burhanuddin Muhtadi.

Yet the Islamic parties do play a key role in these elections. It looks like none of the three major parties will gain a clear majority in parliament, meaning they will be dependent on coalitions with the Islamic parties, which make up the mid-field on the list of 38 registered parties.

Wanted: coalition partners

The Democratic Party led by the incumbent president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, for example, is well ahead in all polls, but is unable to form a government without coalition partners.

Election campaign flags of Indonesia's United Development Party, PPP (photo: Christina Schott)
The United Development Party (PPP), Indonesia's oldest Islamic party, is struggling to build a new image for itself

​​It is currently ruling jointly with Golkar, the largest party in parliament to date. However, Golkar's chairman, Vice President Jusuf Kalla, wants to step out of Yudhoyono's shadow and run for the presidential election himself this coming July.

The PDI-P also wants to field its own candidate, the former president Megawati Soekarnoputri – cancelling it too out as a potential coalition partner. Although the president is elected directly by the population, he or she has no power without an effective majority in parliament. So the smaller parties are the key to controlling the country's politics.

The result is a wild dating season between the nationalist and the Islamic parties, with almost all of them meeting up in various configurations. These mutual approaches are reflected in the campaign issues.

Whereas some nationalist party leaders are styling themselves as great moralists, emphasised by frequent use of snippets of Arabic prayer, the larger Islamic parties are acting the moderates. A number of them have even started accepting non-Muslim members, running campaign ads featuring women without headscarves, punks or people from Indonesia's Catholic East. The big issue uniting all parties is combating poverty.

Showbiz campaign

The question is, though, how many of these messages filter through to the electorate. What the general public sees is the "open campaign" – and in Indonesia that has little to do with manifestos and everything to do with carnival. Supporters dress and paint their faces entirely in the colours of their party, driving through the streets in flag-waving convoys on hooting motorbikes.

Election campaing poster of the Islamic PPP (photo: Christina Schott)
The Islamic PPP is fielding a conspicuous number of female candidates this year and aiming mainly at young voters

​​It is all very reminiscent of a football cup. "The speeches are usually a bit boring, but the music's great," says the rickshaw driver Gandung, whose colleagues previously drove their red-flagged tricycles through the city, ringing their bells incessantly.

Pesta Rakyat – people's festival – was the name given to election campaigns under the former president Suharto's dictatorial regime. The events were a political farce, with Suharto's Golkar party naturally winning by an overwhelming majority. Yet the public was still put in the mood with parades, food and popular concerts.

Despite the new democracy, the strategy has changed very little even eleven years since Suharto's resignation: every campaign event is flanked by promotional giveaways, free food and pop concerts. The Islamic parties are happy to turn a moral blind eye to scantily clad singers gyrating on stage.

"Sexually stimulating" dance movements have actually been banned in public since the past October, when the president signed an anti-pornography bill demanded by the Islamic parties, with a keen eye on the election campaign ahead.

Targeting members of Muslim mass organisations

The 70 million members of the world's largest Muslim mass organisations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, are the main target of all the parties' efforts. Yet the National Awakening Party (PKB), close to the NU, and the National Mandate Party (PAN), founded by Muhammadiyah members, have gambled away their influence.

photo: Christina Schott
Rickshaw campaign parade: despite high-profile campaigning, Megawati Sukarnoputri's PDI-P is facing a loss of voters

​​Both parties are riven by inner conflict, with splinter groups merrily denouncing each other. The United Development Party (PPP), Indonesia's oldest Islamic party, is also struggling to build a new image for itself. Previously burdened with a reputation as an ultra-conservative macho party, the PPP is fielding a conspicuous number of female candidates this year and aiming mainly at young voters.

The winner in this general lack of orientation is the Islamic Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), which won a surprising 7 percent of seats in the last national parliamentary elections five years ago and 24 percent of seats in Jakarta's regional parliament.

The party, which takes its orientation from the radical Muslim Brotherhood, banned in Egypt, hopes to double these figures this time around. That looks fairly credible, at least on the local level: 100,000 people squeezed into Jakarta's Bung Karno Stadium on 31 March to see the party leadership live.

Whether this largest election rally in the history of the Republic of Indonesia is down to the PKS's image as corruption-free or the appearance of the mega-bands Gigi and Cokelat, remains to be seen at the ballot box.

Lack of support outside Jakarta

Outside of Jakarta, at least, polls aren't predicting such good prospects for the party, with its grassroots members mainly from student groups and the urban population. Despite claims to the opposite, many moderate voters fear the PKS is aiming for an Islamic Shari'a state in the long term. 

However the election turns out, many observers are predicting widespread chaos. Along with the national parliament, new representatives are up for election on the provincial, regional and local levels. According to a study by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), 76 percent of Indonesians have too little or no information on the elections and don't understand how to vote for which of the more than 500,000 candidates across the country.

To add insult to injury, with only days to go before the election, not all polling stations have received the necessary ballot boxes and papers – at least five million ballot papers have allegedly disappeared or been damaged.

Several Catholic regions want to postpone the election for Easter. So it's no surprise that 84 percent of respondents in the IFES study said they didn't know whether they'd go to vote at all.

Christina Schott

© 2009

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