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Indonesian politics: Democracy and dreams don’t always mix

Joko Widodo, soaking up the glory of becoming Indonesia’s seventh President. Image: SBS

Joko Widodo, soaking up the glory of becoming Indonesia’s seventh President. Image: The Straits Times

Pacific Scoop:
Analysis – By Belinda Cranston

As Joko Widodo soaks up the glory of becoming Indonesia’s seventh President, spare a thought for those who aspire to similar lofty heights, only to come crashing to the ground.

Born and raised in a riverside squat in the city of Surakarta, also known as Solo, in Central Java province, Jokowi was declared the winner of Indonesia’s presidential election last week, with a convincing 53 percent of the national vote.

Meanwhile his challenger, ex-general Prabowo Subianto, a successful businessman who comes from a prominent and wealthy Javanese political family, was reduced to suggesting the outcome was rigged.

The rags-to riches-theme is big business in contemporary Indonesia, if the deluge of books containing inspirational and motivational tales is anything to go by.

One of these, Laskar Pelangi (The Rainbow Troops), has sold more than five million copies, making its author, Andrea Hirata, the best-selling writer of all time in the country.

It tells of overcoming poverty and standing up to the powerful, and in 2008, was made into an award-winning film.

Such was the appeal of the film, candidates vying for presidency in the lead up to the 2014 Indonesian election connected with the theme, by hiring writers to pen similar tales starring themselves. They included Aburizal Bakrie, also a media mogul and one of Indonesia’s richest men, who commissioned Anak Sejuta Bintang (Child of a Million Stars).

Dictator’s fall
Direct presidential elections started a decade ago, as part of Indonesia’s return to democracy, following the fall of long-time dictator Suharto, in 1998.

Jokowi stands out as extraordinary among politicians in Indonesia and beyond, for being so ordinary in appearance, speech and background, says ANU College of Asia and the Pacific academic Ariel Heryanto.

That someone like him could rise from a slum to president elect in a country formerly ruled by a dictatorship is cause for celebration in the world’s third-largest democracy.

But, as Indonesia’s entertainment industry fuels the notion that democracy can allow anyone to be plucked from obscurity or poverty and turned into a leader, star or billionaire, Heryanto has a cautionary tale.

In his newly published Identity and Pleasure: The Politics of Indonesian Screen Culture, he suggests the huge success of the reality television singing show, Indonesian Idol, lies in its “emphasis on the democratic voting system via SMS to elect the Idola”.

Among those who perhaps got far too wrapped up in the hype were candidates vying for seats in the 2009 Indonesian parliamentary elections.

“Candidates were moved to imitate the television hit programme,” Heryanto says.

Inspiration and hope
“Apparently, it was precisely this show that gave many of the candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds the inspiration and the requisite hope to run for the elections in the first place.”

The result was hoards of massively distressed people who did not win seats.

“The mass media reported psychiatric wards being overwhelmed with former candidates, who were experiencing mental disorders following their defeat in the polls,” Heryanto says.

“Elsewhere, a significant number of failed candidates decided to commit suicide.

“As in their favourite show Indonesian Idol it appears that many contestants had been lured by false promises of extraordinary success and paid a high price when reality finally hit home.”

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) was never seriously considered a political leader, let alone a presidential candidate, before he formerly ran for elections in 2004.

Heryanto suggests the mass media probably played a big part in his securing a second term in 2009. His main contender for the presidency, Megawati Sukarnoputri, on the other hand, disappointed the Indonesian public by evading the media.

When confronted by journalists, she said little, if anything at all.

Three song albums
“In contrast, SBY not only paid generous attention to the demands of the media, the former military officer even went as far as singing at public functions , published three albums of his songs, and attended the finals of the Indonesian Idol competition,” Heryanto points out.

The need for politicians like SBY to pursue celebrity like status was partly due to new regulations introduced in 2009 that didn’t allow party leaders to secure their re-election, as they had in the past, through placing themselves at the top of party rankings.

“Under the new laws, politicians had no choice but to invest in new and extensive campaign efforts in order to maintain their positions,” Heryanto explains.

“As a side effect of this more competitive electoral system, a new type of candidate emerged to challenge the dominance of old party functionaries: ‘celebrities’, more specifically television and film actors, musicians and comedians.”

He says of the 11,000 candidates who ran for parliamentary seats in 2009, 61 were celebrities – a small overall percentage, but nonetheless, highly effective.

Among the success stories were television drama actor Rieke Dyan Pitaloka, who obtained the single largest number of votes for PDIP (Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan) in the West Java II district, leaving party leader Taufiq Kiemas behind.

Upsurge in desire
Similarly, former film star Nurul Arifin ranked first in West Java VII district, defeating senior politician Ade Komarudin from the same party.

Another effect of the amended electoral law was that it encouraged an upsurge in the desire among ordinary citizens to run in regional elections.

“The 2009 electoral laws made democratic procedures more equal, leading many to the illusion that all citizens are politically equal in elections, regardless of their socioeconomic strength and connections,” Heryanto says.

But the delusion of many commoners and their ambition to run for the parliamentary elections at local and national levels ended in disappointment both in 2009 and 2014.

Perhaps only a chosen few are destined for the limelight. After all, if everyone got to shine, there would be no one clapping on the sidelines.

  • Identity and Pleasure: The Politics of Indonesian Screen Culture is published by National University of Singapore Press.

Belinda Cranston is a writer at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

Source: SBS