DUNCAN GRAHAM. Robbing Roads To Keep Rice Cheap.

Sep 18, 2018

Unlike their southern neighbours, Indonesians know when they’ll go to the polls – 17 April 2019. That Wednesday will be a public holiday to encourage a big turn out.  Voting is not compulsory.

In the 2014 election 135 million electors punched a hole in a ballot paper to make their choice – around 70 per cent of those on the roll – in the world’s third largest democracy.  

Next year voters aged over 17 will get the chance to directly elect the president, 580 members of the People’s Consultative Assembly (known as the DPR) and 128 to the Regional Assembly, (DPD). 

Fifteen parties will bid for seats but there are only two rematch contestants for the top job – incumbent Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, 57, and former general Prabowo Subianto, 67, who lost his 2014 bid by just under seven per cent.

Though campaigning is not supposed to start till 13 October, jostling is well underway.  Now is the time for Australia to keep its head down; if we get dragged into the contest the collateral damage to relationships could be lasting.

For the opening of last month’s well-staged Asian Games, a video mock-up of Widodo powering a Yamaha FZ1 motorbike through Jakarta’s traffic quagmire to get to the event was a big hit.

A stunt man masquerading as the President flipped the 1,000 cc machine over traffic jams and weaved around blocks, a lift from Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible minus the gunfire.

One brief edit showed Widodo’s left hand and wedding ring – a shot at his divorced rival; the significance of the cutaway didn’t escape viewers in a society where marital status is a critical factor for candidates’ credibility.

Though not financial cleanliness.  At last count 33 general election contestants from 13 parties had been convicted for looting state funds.  

In Malang, the second largest city in East Java, 41 of the 45 local councilors have been charged with corruption by the national graft-buster, the Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (Corruption Eradication Commission).

Although it has put hundreds behind bars and is widely supported by the public, the KPK is struggling to change a culture where cheats prosper;  five years ago Indonesia ranked 107 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.  It’s now 96 of the 180 nations measured  (Australia is 13th, New Zealand the cleanest in first place.)

In many jurisdictions a criminal record would disbar candidates for high office.   Not in Indonesia where a Supreme Court ruling this month overturned an Electoral Commission regulation banning corruptors from standing.

Accusing political rivals of jangling keys to the public vaults is not the most effective assault; real woundings are made through charges of having Communist sympathies.  As the party has been banned since 1965 when Widodo was four years old, the tactic is to smear his late father Notomiharjo.

Grainy doctored photos have been circulating on social media.  These allegedly show  Dad a bystander at Red rallies before a coup against founding President Soekarno put the dictator General Soeharto into power for 32 years.

The other ploy is to claim contestants aren’t true Muslims. Neither Widodo nor Subianto is known for excessive piety, but the latter is more vulnerable because there were Christians in his family. 

The fall-back for Subianto’s urgers is a video featuring aging politicians awkwardly singing that it’s time for change – for no good reason as alternative policies are not in the lyrics.

Subianto’s Gerindra Party and its coalition partners are stirring nationalism, claiming the current administration is getting too matey with outsiders, not just the Chinese but all foreigners.  This is where Australia is susceptible.  

Even if our politicians refrain from castigating Muslims, and Ozzie teens lay off drugs in Bali, there’s enough old baggage, dating back to our support for the 1999 East Timor referendum. waiting to be unpacked by xenophobes.

On present polling Widodo is a shoe-in, but much will happen in seven months, particularly as politicians and parties often swap sides.  Many Western commentators stress the importance of religion, but voters are now better educated and prepared to separate faith and state in a private polling booth.

The rupiah has fallen nine per cent against the US dollar this year and is the worst performing economy in the region. To offset the risks of angering the poor by upping the outlay for basics, the government has been shoveling out subsidies.

To do this it’s been robbing the budgets for capital works that Widodo pledged to improve when campaigning in 2014.

The state oil company Pertamina has been hit by higher costs for importing oil, which it should have passed on to consumers.  Instead the pump price has been propped up to avoid revving-up motorists.

Taxes have been hiked on consumer goods.  Some household items are now well above the cost of similar goods in Australian supermarkets, but these aren’t essentials, like rice, cooking oil, sugar and meat.

Big infrastructure projects are still going ahead – obvious to any voter who takes a long-distance train or road trip and gets held up by earth-movers.  Much of the money is coming from China and the debt is growing fast.

Whoever wins next April will likely inherit a fiscal volcano threatening to blow, with the potential to create economic and social instability.

Duncan Graham is a freelance Australian journalist living in Indonesia. 

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