Winding road to Indonesian democracy
By Michael Vatikiotis and John McBeth
JAVA - Hugging the north coast of Java virtually parallel to the equator runs one of Indonesia's oldest roads, a two-lane carriageway that is perhaps an even more vital commercial artery now than when it was originally built.
The so-called "post road" was built by the Dutch in the 19th century to carry mail and other goods between the old colonial capital of Batavia (now Jakarta) and the eastern port city of Surabaya. Tens of thousands of Javanese workers were forced to build the road and countless numbers died from disease and maltreatment at the hands of their brutal colonial overlords.
Two centuries later, the road remains one of the main transport
routes running across this island of more than 100 million people, laden with trucks and buses careering along a route linking old pre-colonial sultanates to the graves of prominent 15th century Muslim converts.
Traveling along this road over a four-day period at the start of the official presidential election campaign in the first week of June, these correspondents spoke to voters across a wide area of Central and East Java, widely viewed as a hotly contested electoral battleground.
Our journey began in Jogyakarta and took us north through Solo and Purwodadi before hitting the north coast city of Demak, famous as the home of the oldest mosque in Indonesia, and then heading east to the towns of Kudus, Tuban and Rembang.
It's a journey we have taken ahead of the two previous direct elections for the presidency, in 2004 and 2009, to sound out voters ahead of the polls, albeit this time along a somewhat different route.
A few kilometers beyond the old fishing port of Rembang, in the small town of Lasem where stout fishing boats are still built by hand of local ironwood, volunteers were stringing white cloth along the side of a bridge.
It was the first sign of a new and progressive approach to politics ahead of the July 9 presidential election, which pits Indonesian Democrat Party for Struggle (PDI-P) candidate Joko Widodo against Prabowo Subianto, a retired general who heads the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra).
The volunteers were all supporters of Joko, a homespun furniture dealer who served two terms as mayor of Solo and then went on to be elected governor of the national capital Jakarta in 2012. In barely two years, he has gone from obscure city official to the man many believe will be Indonesia's next popularly elected president.
The cloth was being prepared for local people to sign and offer their support to Joko. "They are all volunteers. No-one is paying them," said Jasman, a local PDI-P legislator. "What's more," he added, "many are contributing money to his campaign, and this sheet bearing their names will serve as their commitment to support him."
While such contributions are normal in more established democracies, for Indonesia they represent a significant change in voter behavior in what is the country's third direct presidential election.
Fifteen years into a democratic transition that began with the fall of president Suharto's military-backed regime in 1998, only now are ordinary Indonesians enthusiastic enough about an individual candidate that they are willing to fork out their own meager funds and volunteer their time.
Across the nation, ordinary voters have sent in campaign contributions, often as little as the rupiah equivalent of a dollar or two, through local banks. Handoko, a driver and tour guide from Jogyakarta, for example, proudly declared that he contributed 75,000 rupiah - just over US$6 - using a local bank transfer.
Party sources now say as much as 32 billion rupiah (US$2.7 million) in electoral funds have been raised in this manner. In Lasem, Jasman explained that the contributions collected in cash will be forwarded to Joko's campaign in the presence of local reporters.
Certain political scientists argue that democracy only really serves the people if the people take an active part in it. Across Southeast Asia, however, democracy has tended to be more about elite power games and vote-buying than participatory governance.
Ordinary Indonesians traditionally have low expectations about their participation in the political process, expecting that the vote will be sold to the highest bidder. That's still the attitude many have when it comes to electing representatives to the national parliament.
A group of fishermen drinking morning coffee in the port of Lukung was adamant that they needed to be paid at least 50,000 rupiah on election day to cast their ballots - mainly to compensate them for skipping a day out at sea in their boats.
The electoral situation started to change when Indonesians got the chance to vote directly for the president. In 2004 and 2009, we found Indonesians taking their vote more seriously and not being swayed by whom they were told or paid to vote.
The difference this time is that many voters are so excited by one of the candidates that they are actively participating in the campaign and making commitments ahead of election day. If Joko, the man popularly known as Jokowi, manages to win with grass roots financial backing and volunteer support it will be a watershed not just for Indonesia but for the wider region.
He has been leading in opinion polls from the start. Although the gap between Joko and Prabowo narrowed significantly following the April 9 preliminary vote, it is still a healthy 9%-10% margin according to recent surveys. Anywhere else that gap would be considered insurmountable, but not in Indonesia.
New choices, old influences
Latent primordialism going back decades, loyalties to political parties and mass Muslim organizations and even miss-steps in a series of nationwide televised debates could all prove decisive influences in the final election outcome.
Joko and running mate Jusuf Kalla, who served as vice president to incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono from 2004-9, have presented themselves as coming from the people to serve the people.
Prabowo and vice-presidential candidate Hatta Rajasa, another former minister under Yudhoyono, project themselves as strong leaders with a bold vision for the country.
The optics to the folks in Lasem - and in almost every other stop along the "old post" road - are clear: Jokowi has the people's interest at heart, whilst Prabowo represents the old elite with its top down, "we know what is best", approach to government.
For this reason Joko's actual policies seem to matter little to many of his supporters. In Kudus, a city which advertises itself as the "City of Kretek (traditional cigarettes made with a blend of tobacco, cloves and other flavors), a group of men sits around a small space on the edge of a bird market watching a supposedly illegal cock fight.
Nurul, a security guard from the Djarum cigarette factory that is the city's main employer and economic life-blood, looks on as the scrawny birds fly at each other in a blur of feathers, blood and talons.
"All we care about is that Jokowi is one of us. He is clean and free of corruption," he says tugging on a kretek while keeping his eyes on the fight. Ironically, for men who admire the fighting qualities of their roosters, none of them professed attachment to the macho strongman image projected by Prabowo.
But as the opinion polls show, Prabowo also has formidable popular support. Although less vocal and often shy about identifying themselves, Prabowo's supporters often cite the retired general's strong, decisive personality and his experience as a commander as the reasons for their backing.
At a small shipyard in Sarang on the road to Lamongan, we met shipbuilder Musli among the teak and ironwood timbers used to build the sturdy, broad beamed fishing boats that ply these waters. Musli said he would vote for Prabowo "because he is from the military and is firm and decisive". Jokowi may be clean and honest, he added, but he is just "an ordinary man".
Even Jokowi supporters from his hometown of Solo are willing to admit Prabowo's comparative strengths. "He is definitely a man of the world and has experience as a statesman," says Karno, a food vendor in Solo's downtown Klewer Market.
This drives at the heart of the electoral dilemma for more than 186 million eligible voters, more than 73% of whom went to the parliamentary polls on April 4. While Jokowi is likable, humble, and honest, Prabowo looks more like a natural leader.
"Indonesia can't afford to have a civilian leader," insists a weather-beaten rice farmer in the village of Larongan on the outskirts of Lamongan, a district made notorious by the fact that it is the home of Amrozi, one of the executed Bali bombers.
A little further east in a small roadside coffee shop on the outskirts of Mantuk, Bagus, a first time voter who works in a construction material factory, was still unsure about who he would chose for president: "I like what I see in Jokowi, but I also admire Prabowo," he said.
Judging from the sentiments expressed by most people we met, it is still Jokowi's race to lose. At the same time, many of the voters to whom we spoke had low expectations for a democratic process in which for the first time one of their own - an ordinary fellow with a clean and humble image - has a shot at becoming national leader.
This often palpable lack of excitement is perhaps reflective of the fact that Indonesians feel more secure and worry less about political transition as they did in 2004, when Yudhoyono was first voted to the presidency. But it also underscores an enduring reality: however much it excites people in the capital Jakarta, national politics remains rather irrelevant to the lives of ordinary Indonesians in the provinces.
What then to make of the popular activism and participation in Jokowi's campaign along the "old post" road? At the end of our journey in Surabaya we met activist Huljono outside the city headquarters of the National Democrat Party, which has thrown its significant support behind Jokowi.
He pointed to a large billboard carrying a picture of Prabowo and Hatta on the street corner. "That wasn't there two days ago," he said. "There was a billboard for Jokowi on the same spot. That's the power of money politics."
A key aspect of the campaign, both at the elite level and along the rural Java byways, is that Jokowi represents a new face of Indonesian politics - clean, transparent, and working for the people. He engenders trust and a degree of excitement rarely seen at lower levels of Indonesian society.
The worry many have is that the old dynamics of Indonesian politics, driven by the harnessing of bureaucratic and political machinery as well as primordial ties to ethnic and religious affiliations to build a strong base of support that favors the status quo, may well prevail.
That is unless Joko's popularly supported and grassroots-funded campaign wins the day at the July 9 presidential polls. Perhaps then Indonesians can start to believe that they own their democracy and make the government and the bureaucracy work for them rather than against them.
Michael Vatikiotis was a veteran correspondent and former editor of the Hong-Kong based news weekly The Far Eastern Economic Review before its closure in 2004. He contributes op-ed columns to several newspapers including The New York Times and can be read on Twitter @jagowriter. John McBeth is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review. He is currently a Jakarta-based columnist for the Straits Times of Singapore.
(Copyright 2014 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)