Home > South-East Asia >> Indonesia

Indonesia: The basis for a national leadership crisis

By Max Lane - January 7, 2009

While the campaign for the 2009 parliamentary and presidential elections have just begun, it is already possible to discern the embryonic development of a national leadership crisis, which will be associated with a major crisis of legitimacy. The cause of this crisis is the increasing gap between the majority of the Indonesian public and what has been increasingly referred to as the “elit politik” – the political elite embodied in the all the political parties standing candidates in the elections, and the various former New Order officials – including ex-generals – maneuvering around the edges of the electoral processes. The gap represents a deepening alienation between rakyat and elit.


One manifestation of the alienation is the strengthening trend towards Golput, that is towards the decision not to vote at all. Indonesia has historically had high participation rates in elections. In the country’s first two elections in 1955 and 1957 after the end of the guerilla war against Dutch colonialism in 1949, the participation rate was over 90 percent. During the Suharto period, under duress participation often reached over 90 percent. The duress was not the only factor however, as was reflected in the mass turn out at rallies for non-regime parties' rallies, such as the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI). In the elections in 1999 immediately after the fall of Suharto, participation was also high at around 93 percent. Since 1999, however, the trend has between for an increasing number of eligible voters to either not bother registering or, even after registering, not bother to vote. This was evident in the 2004 parliamentary elections, with over 30 percent not voting, and even more so in some of the provincial and kabupaten (regency) local elections, such as near 40 percent in East Java. Golput non-votes have been at least 25 percent, sometimes reaching 40 percent or more in elections on Sumatra, Java and Bali.

It was not surprising then when one party leader, Nur Hidayat from the Justice Welfare Party (PKS), urged the Islamic Ulamas Assembly to issue a fatwa stating that Golput was haram (forbidden) according to religious law, which they did soon afterwards. Political statements by party leaders, including Vice-President and Golkar Party Chairperson Yusuf Kalla, have been repeatedly urging people not to Golput and emphasizing how it would be a setback for democracy if too many people decided not to vote. It is impossible to watch a TV talk show about the elections where the various party leaders urge and cajole people not to Golput, or condemn Golput as anti-democratic.

The increase in the trend towards Golput is not a manifestation of apathy among the people. Everybody is still talking politics in the kampongs (urban village), factories and in the villages. Politics is everywhere in everybody’s face, Driving from Jakarta through Bekasi, Kerawang, Indramayu, Cirebon and on to Purwokerto in December, the road was lined with flags but also placards and billboards promoting individual candidates. At every stop, people had strong opinions on politics. The commercial TV shows know the interest is there too – with more than one station declaring itself the “Election Station”. Politics sells.

Unpopular parties

But while everybody is still interested in politics, fewer and fewer people are interested in any of the 44 parties offering themselves for elections. Polling in 2006 and 2007 often showed up to 70 percent of those polled as not supporting any party or figure. Now, as the elections approach and more and more polling companies are around, a wider spectrum of results are available. Any random personal poll on the streets, however, meets the same refrain: they are all no good. I think my random street polls are accurate. This alienation from the parties is not only reflected in the Golput trend but also in the simple fact that there is no party in Indonesia likely to even near a 50 percent nationwide vote, or even 40 percent. The two biggest parties in the 2004 elections scored only 23 percent (Golar) and 18 percent (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, PDI-P). The rest scored below 15 percent, and many parties associated with national figures such as Amien Rais and Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) scored below 10 percent.

Now with a possible 40 percent Golput vote these figures of around 20 percent and below – if they manage to get that high again – will be 5 or 10 or 15 percent of only 60 percent of voters, so actually even lower votes.

Despite the range of urgent socio-economic challenges, such as massive disguised unemployment and low productivity, declining economic growth, a neglected education system and others, no leadership is emerging which is winning any enthusiasm from the community. If anything, people are becoming more and more alienated. Perhaps it is worth considering for a moment one of the less positive election outcome scenarios, but one which is more and more likely, and its implication for national politics.

Let us assume a 40 percent Golput vote. That means the remaining 60 percent would be divided up among the 44 parties. But only those parties which reach more that 2.5 percent of the national vote will be eligible to take up any seats that they have won. (The Indonesian parliament has 500 seats, so anybody who won less than 15 seats will get no seats at all.) It is quite likely that the bottom 34 parties will garner around 20 percent of the vote, with a few getting 1-2 percent and the majority getting under 1 percent. So that 20 percent of the electorate will also not be represented. The Indonesian parliament may only represent 40 percent of the population and even then the representation will be fragmented among 7-10 parties, none of whom will have won voting shares indicating they have any real large scale enthusiastic support.

What real authority and legitimacy can such a parliament have? Furthermore, it is assured that immediately after the elections all the parties will be seen to be engaged in an orgy of deals as each of these small political fragments scramble to form coalitions in support of one of several possible presidential candidates. This has already happened for local elections and some parties’ have already been publicly maneuvering making statements about who they may or may not support for presidential candidates. The general impression given is that every party is open to a deal with any party. As Jusuf Kalla was quoted in the papers as saying: when it comes to coalitions, ideology is not important, just as long as you win.

Why the alienation?

The fact that every party is willing to do deals with any party is one key pointer to their unpopularity. Kalla’s statement claims that ideology is not important, but the reality is that they can all to deals with each other because on the fundamental socio-economic issues they all share the same outlook. No party questions the fundamental neo-liberal economic strategy – reducing subsidies on goods and services consumed by ordinary people, privatizing and corporatizing state owned companies, and deregulating both domestic economic activity as well as international trade. While various figures and party advertising campaigns throw around all kinds of rhetoric – “new directions”, “change”, “a party for the poor”, “cheap goods for the people” and so on – the reality is that over the last five years no party has campaigned seriously against these kinds of policies, nor even voted against neo-liberal oriented laws. The PDI-P staged one walk-out on the Foreign Investment Law, but did not follow-up with any serious campaign to revise the Law. There is no party based on a large trade union or farmers’ unions movement that might present an alternative.

The lack of interest in challenging current policy directions is also very clearly evident in the parties’ election advertising. This comprises of just party flags with nothing on it but the name, or billboards or placards with the name and picture of a candidate with only the vaguest political slogan, and sometimes no political slogan at all. It seems that they are trying to base their appeal on what the candidates look like rather than what policies their parties propose, which is not surprising if their parties policies are simply “itu-itu lagi”, just more of the same. Those parties with money are starting to run some very well produced television ads, but again there is nothing concrete proposed or put forward.

So the people are left with the following impression: the parties are very enthusiastic about working out what deals will get them the positions they want, but think it is enough just to present their portraits and some vague rhetoric, whether slickly produced on TV or on a billboard made with digital printing. No doubt as the elections get closer, the partiers will mobilise their intellectual support base to produce various position papers. But these will not play a big role compared to the rhetoric and portraits.

This kind of politics is laying the basis for a possible crisis of national leadership and of legitimacy of governance. Perhaps such leadership will, in the end, emerge out of the extra-parliamentary political sphere instead. Certainly there is no let up in social protest on the streets nor any decrease in the number of organizations concentrating on extra-parliamentary activity. Or perhaps this elit politik will panic and actually promise something concrete. But then they would be raising expectations among the people regarding improvements that the elit would have no intention of delivering.

That is the most potentially explosive scenario.

For more information and analysis on Indonesia visit Max Lane's blog at http://blogs.usyd.edu.au/maxlaneintlasia/

See also:

Home | Site Map | Calendar & Events | News Services | Links & Resources | Contact Us Us