The ghosts in the vote machine in Indonesia

Nov 14, 2023
Voter on an waiving Indonesia flag background. 3d illustration

Indonesian politics is about personalities, not policy. Some among the 20,000 candidates for national and regional office at the globe’s biggest one-day ballot next year must be driven by altruism. But how to vote? Who do the dead recommend?

Election info next door comes from TV, social media and outdoor advertising, Thousands of placards, giant posters and banners are trashing calming views of paddy and jungle across the archipelago, an assault on the senses.

Space on the flapping vinyl is limited to meaningless one-liners, the hopeful’s photo – and a shade exhumed from the netherworld of ad agencies.

They’re added to push voters pondering their choice for next year’s Valentine’s Day election, porting the message: ’I’ve come from the beyond to tell you this guy’s good.’

Indonesians are addicted to the paranormal whatever their religion. Spirits roost in the dense aerial roots of the centuries-old banyan figs; they lurk in the crumbling ruins of Dutch colonial villas, even cornices in modern homes.

Not all are sinister. The most used spectre on the ads is the smiling wraith of Soekarno, hovering behind daughter Megawati, peering down on her choice.

This is former Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo, 55, representing the mildly left nationalist Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan (struggle) which Mega runs ruthlessly.

Be not fooled by the D-word. The secular party and its queen are as democratic as North Korea and Kim Jong Un. Ganjar was not elected by the membership but picked from the throne.

If first president Soekarno was alive today he’d be 122, but his images aren’t Halloween. He looks young and handsome, better known for bedding nine wives than stuffing up the economy and playing footsies with the Reds.

He died in 1970, deposed after a failed coup and a military power grab. More than half the 200 million registered voters are under 40 so their acquaintance is only as the Proklamator who announced the end of Dutch colonialism on 17 August 1945.

Yet the party gurus believe his pictorial presence will swing votes – which is like channeling Robert Menzies to boost Peter Dutton’s profile.

Ganjar’s main rival is Prabowo Subianto, 72, a hard-right Mussolini figure. His ads use the apparition of Abdurrahman ‘Gus Dur’ Wahid who died in 2009.

The Republic’s fourth president was an enlightened liberal – the antithesis of the man he’s supposed to be endorsing from the grave. The misrepresentation is gross, running parallel with a plot to whitewash the candidate once banned from the US.

Melbourne University Professor Tim Lindsey describes Prabowo as ‘a cashiered general and former son-in-law of the authoritarian Soeharto, who ruled Indonesia for more than three decades.

‘Prabowo has been accused of human rights abuses, including in Timor and Papua, and alleged involvement in the abduction and murders of activists around the time of the collapse of Soeharto’s New Order regime in 1998.’

When dishonourably discharged for disobeying orders he fled to exile in Jordan. Now he’s back with his own Gerakan Indonesia Raya (Gerindra) Great Indonesia Movement Party for a third crack at the top job. He’s backed by Jakarta’s business elite – and (not a misprint), his former rival President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo.

This next bit requires some suspension of Western reason by believers in the them-and-us Westminster system where leaders are only seen together at state funerals.

Last week Jokowi hosted an intimate lunch for the three men fighting to be his successor. Did they share visions, hopes, challenges? No, they discussed the quality of the chicken soup. Indonesians find chatting about food more palatable than the confrontation debates favoured Down Under.

According to the South China Morning Post, ‘all three candidates share some common policy platforms, such as a commitment to modernising Indonesia’s armed forces and maintaining a free and active foreign policy.

‘But they differ, analysts say, on their economic strategies, campaign rhetoric – and desire to either preserve or abandon the outgoing president’s legacy.’ This is a reference to the US$35 + billion new capital project in Kalimantan, already struggling for investors.

Absent from this glib report is any mention of resolving the ongoing guerrilla war in West Papua.

While partisans doctor their hero’s past, a supposedly independent Australian-initiated website The Conversation has relabelled Prabowo as a ‘retired general’. The website’s charter says its journalism is ‘responsible, ethical and supported by evidence.’

Chief Editor Ika Krismantari told this writer she knows Prabowo ‘carried a lot of baggage’ but ‘in many websites he still carries the title purnawirawan (retired), even for some military officers he is still considered as mantan jenderal (former general.’ This is the Trump tactic – tell a lie long enough and it morphs into fact.

The third contestant, and probably the best for Australia though least likely to win, is the US-educated academic and former Jakarta Governor Dr Anies Baswedan, 54. He has Arab ancestors but so far his advisors have been unable to exhume any corpse keen to endorse.

He’s on the Nasional Demokrat ticket. Like Mega’s outfit it has nothing to do with the ancient Greek philosophy as its goal reveals: ‘To build a democracy based on strong people who are called on to bring about a bright future.’

NasDem is the fiefdom of Indonesia’s Rupert Murdoch, media baron Surya Paloh, 72, who titles himself ‘the father of Indonesian restoration’. He can’t get into the palace because he’s from Sumatra, so plays as a dahlang – puppet master.

Political wisdom has only Javanese Muslim blokes stand a chance. Java is the administrative, religious and cultural heart of the archipelago and the most populous island with 56 per cent of enrolled voters.

The polls currently show no clear winner, meaning there could be a shoot-out between the top two. In this scenario, most of Anies’ votes would likely go to Ganjar. If Prabowo fails again expect engineered street riots, as with the 2019 election.

The candidates’ images are masterpieces of electronic editing, erasing the decades of revealing reality. The aged pray that Gen Z idealists won’t notice last century’s recycled self-seekers, only see Dorian Grays. Spooky.

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