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Election lethargy in Indonesia

Session of the Indonesian People’s Representative Council (public domain, source:

WHILE Malaysians are excited by the prospect of three simultaneous by-elections on 7 April 2009, Indonesians next door are showing distinctive signs of electoral fatigue.

A news report featured on Indonesia’s Trans7 TV channel summed up the prevailing mood when it reported on a day in the life of a party worker from President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono‘s Partai Demokrat (Democratic Party).

It was the last leg of the campaign in the city of Cirebon along the northern coast of Java and the worker complained that even after weeks of campaigning, he still didn’t fully understand what his party stood for. All that mattered to him was collecting as many free t-shirts and food coupons as he could while the party goodies were still available.

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono
(public domain, source:

Perhaps the most distressing image captured on camera was that of him and his wife munching on a bag of buns while the Partai Demokrat representative addressed the crowd. Both were indifferent to the party’s message until the dangdut singers came on stage to strut their stuff.

Hundreds of kilometres away in Central Java, I called and spoke to Yudhi, my regular becak driver in Jogjakarta, to ask him what the mood was like. “It’s a party here,” he quipped, “and I’ve been attending all the party rallies in Jogja — I’ve got a dozen free t-shirts already, from all the parties! You want one, Mas Farish? What size do you wear?”


Complex glut

Yudhi’s somewhat apathetic reaction to the continuous wooing by the parties in Indonesia is perhaps typical of the populace’s current mood.

Presently, the three main parties — the Partai Demokrat, Partai Demokrasi Indonesia-Perjuangan (PDI-P) and Golkar —- are thrashing it out in a battle of giants to get the lion’s share of the votes. Meanwhile, the other parties — ranging from Gerindra, Hanura, PNI-Marhaenisme and the numerous Islamist parties with acronyms such as PPP, PKS, PKB and PAN — are left battling for secondary roles in what may well be a very plural and complex Parliament when the votes have been counted.

This leaves analysts and democracy activists in a quandary of sorts. It is undeniable that since the fall of President Suharto in 1998, the dominant trend in Indonesia has been that of steady democratisation and reform. With around 170 million eligible voters about to exercise their democratic right to vote soon, being in Indonesia right now is an exciting thing indeed.

Suharto (public domain, source:

But the expansion of the democratic space in Indonesia has also led to the creation of a very complex and in some respects over-populated democratic space where there are almost too many contenders for the prize. The Jakarta Post on 2 April 2009 reported that until now millions of voters in Indonesia remain confused about the voting process. They are also bewildered when confronted with a ballot paper the size of a tablecloth, festooned with almost forty party symbols for them to choose from. If we thought having 15 candidates in Bukit Selambau was a logistical nightmare for the Election Commission, imagine what it’s like in Indonesia.

For Professor Bambang Setiaji, rector of Universitas Muhamadiyah Surakarta, this development is an ambiguous one at best: “On the positive side, the fact that there are so many parties has actually minimised the possibility of conflict in the streets. But at the same time, the level of cynicism has also grown as many of the voters feel that the elected representatives are merely working to get their perks in Parliament. As a result, we are back to the sort of emotional politics that we haven’t seen for some years now.”

The same dour observations were offered by other academics and analysts who were interviewed. Dr Yusron Razak of the Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic University of Jakarta says: “The mood this time round is one of apathy. The public seems to have lost their faith and trust in elected representatives, even before voting, as the economic conditions have not really improved since last year. So, despite the campaigning and the fanfare, it has turned out to be a rather dull election so far.”

Similar views were echoed outside Jakarta, as in the case of Dr Mohd Nur Ichwan of Sunan Kalijaga University in Jogjakarta: “The election process itself has become so complicated, and the people have lost their enthusiasm. This makes us worried because the level of pessimism and apathy are considerably higher, and the level of distrust (of party-politics) is [also] high.”

All hopes on Indonesia

Map of Indonesia (source: Wiki commons)
Complicated ballot processes and lacklustre campaigning aside, however, Indonesia cannot afford to falter now. For much of Southeast Asia — and in particular neighbouring countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore — Indonesia’s successful transition to a working democracy is proof that even after more than three decades of military-backed dictatorship under former Suharto, democracy can succeed if it given the chance. For pro-democracy activists in Malaysia, Thailand and elsewhere in the region, the dream of seeing Indonesia turn itself into a real working democracy is more than a pie in the sky: it is an aspiration that needs to be supported and proven true in the long run.

Indonesia is perhaps going through a democracy-glut at present, as so many parties and political leaders come to the fore to present themselves as candidates for power and rule. The outcome of next week’s elections will be closely monitored by everyone, including Indonesians themselves, but one thing is certain for now at least.

Lethargy and apathy aside, nobody is complaining about there being “too much” democracy in the country, or harping on about the return to authoritarian rule. For better or worse, Indonesia started on the road to democracy in 1998; even if that road is destined to be a long, and sometimes tiring, one.

Dr Farish A Noor is senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU, Singapore and affiliated professor at Universitas Muhamadiyah Surakarta, Indonesia. He is also the co-founder of The Other Malaysia website.

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One Response to “Election lethargy in Indonesia”

  1. kahseng says:


    Election lethargy can be a good sign of a working democracy.

    These may be signs that Indonesia is potentially more stable than Malaysia and Thailand.

    Interventionists and and activists who are too used to the instinct of national unity, social activism, people power (rather than constitutional and legal rules) and “strong” government must learn to respect the people’s comfort in democracy.

    When people trust that the laws and election outcome will be less likely to oppress them, they get less uptight about election. They are less likely to demonstrate violently, to take to the street, to object to others’ “illegitimate” powers, etc.

    This phenomenon has good theoretical basis in libertarian philosophy. Read Bastiat’s “The Law” and his argument why women and children (and by extension slaves, lower-class, and crazy people) were not allowed to vote in the past, and even now.


    Bastiat’s point is that people get uptight about who can and cannot vote, and about election outcome because people expected their votes to empower oppressive laws to oppress them.

    On the other hand, if they suddenly wake up to realize that “the laws” are minimal, restricted to only protect their life, property, and rights, and avoid oppression, then nobody will care for the whole election process, or who can and cannot vote. Why care about politics if you can trust the law to treat you with justice?

    We have lived too long in the Malaysian-Singaporean morality that the group, the community, the collective, must be seen to actively do the right things.

    No we must relearn the basics – just focus on liberty, i.e., the protection of life, property, rights, the prevention of oppression. Never mind how other people conduct their own lives.

    Be careful not to view the chaos and tolerance of democracy as a weakness or even sickness.

    All right. Just playing devil’s advocate. Perhaps the writer has observed something important on the ground.

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