Politics in Indonesia: It’s Business As Usual

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Politics in Indonesia: It’s Business As Usual

Indonesian elections are plagued by business dealings colored as politics.

Politics in Indonesia: It’s Business As Usual
Credit: Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

There are two events that define 2018 as the year of politics in Indonesia: first, the simultaneous Regional Heads Elections (Pilkada Serentak) and second, the registration of presidential candidates for the 2019 presidential election. Both political agendas will kick off this summer (in June and August, respectively) and will certainly heat up the political temperature in Indonesia as well as polarize the nation again, like the 2014 presidential election and 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election.

The political year of 2018, however, will not be much different from the past, even though Indonesia is enjoying a relatively more democratic political atmosphere after leaving Suharto’s New Order regime behind. The promise echoed by reformation (reformasi), which once guaranteed that politics is for all, has now proven to be just an illusion. In reality, Indonesian politics is still exclusively for the country’s elites.

Politics in Indonesia is expensive and in many parts of the country it can only be entered by the rich — those whose total wealth is billions or even trillions of rupiahs. The 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election is a prime example. The then-incumbent candidate pair — Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama and Djarot Saiful Hidayat — respectively had total personal wealth of over 26 billion ($2 million) and 6.2 billion ($496,000) rupiahs; the Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono/Sylviana Murni pair had total wealth of more than 16 billion and 8.3 billion rupiahs, and the winning pair, Anies Baswedan and Sandiaga Uno, had more than 8 billion and 3.8 trillion rupiahs.

Outside Jakarta, the story is generally the same. The total wealth of the governor and vice governor candidates in the 2015 Jambi gubernatorial election was between 1.5 to 4.1 billion rupiahs; the governor pair in West Java for the upcoming Pilkada has between 1 to 38 billion rupiahs; and contestants in the 2013 East Kalimantan Pilkada had between 1.5-23 billion rupiahs.

Meanwhile, in the 2016 Pilkada there were also several candidates who had an extraordinary amount of assets, in addition to the current deputy governor of Jakarta, Sandiaga Uno. Their total wealth ranged from 182 billion to 2.26 trillion rupiahs.

The reason for the elites’ monopoly in Indonesia’s political sphere is obvious: politics in Indonesia is in practice similar to business. In order to win an election, a candidate cannot help but prepare large capital. To become a village head it costs 130-150 million rupiahs; becoming a member of the People’s Representative Council (DPR) costs 1.18 to 4.6 billion rupiahs, a mayor is from 20-30 billion rupiahs, a regent is 75 billion rupiahs, a governor ranges from 100 to 400 billion rupiahs, and president costs up to 7 trillion rupiahs! These fantastic figures are certainly far from the reach of the majority of Indonesians, whose average income is only 47 million rupiahs per year.

Huge political capital is prepared to smooth out the so-called political transactions. Political transactions are never absent, especially in the months leading up to an election. In the case of the candidates’ selection for DPR or regional head positions for example, political parties often charge an illegal fee to anyone wishing to run. Director of the Public Forum for Indonesian Parliament Sebastian Salang had to abandon his intention to contest the Manggarai Election in East Nusa Tenggara in 2015 after not being able to fulfill the “ticket money” demanded by a party. Recently, Chairman of East Java Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Kadin) La Nyalla Mattalitti reported having been extorted by the Gerindra Party’s chairman, Prabowo Subianto. The former top military general, according to Mattalitti, asked him to provide 40 billion rupiahs for his bid in the 2018 East Java Gubernatorial election.

Although Gerindra denies asking for this “dowry” (mahar), financial contributions to a party cannot be avoided by a candidate, as expressed by Ridwan Kamil when running for the mayor of Bandung back in 2013. The now West Java governor candidate confirms that he gave cash to Gerindra to finance his candidacy campaign. Furthermore, in the process of determining the serial number of legislative candidates, such transactions also often occur. A special dowry needs to be handed over to a party’s leader if a contestant desires to be put in the number one spot on the party’s candidates list or be matched to a certain electoral district (dapil).

The next transaction is a transaction between big bosses or political financiers (cukongs) and candidates. Indonesia’s elections are clearly not a competition between aspirants but between cukongs, who usually pour big money into promising contenders. The involvement of cukongs in Pilkada is not a fairy tale, even though their existence is difficult to prove. The former Indonesian Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) chairman, Busyro Muqoddas, admits that cukongs do not hesitate to transfer large sums of money to a regional head candidate’s bank account in exchange for business protection, friendly policies, or government projects offers should the candidate be elected.

Between candidates and constituents, transactions also take place. A good candidate in the eyes of many constituents is the one who regularly gives “donations” to the community. The more donations are made, the better the candidate will be.  This phenomenon of “wani piro?” or “how much will you pay?” is exploited effectively by candidates. Thus, it is not a strange sight if a legislative or regional head candidate suddenly becomes generous to a community, giving various donations ranging from money for youth empowerment to free ambulances that will stop operating after elections and renovation of places of worship. The most obvious example of this kind of political transaction happened just prior to the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election, when Ahok’s team were caught red-handed several times by the General Election Supervisory Board (Bawaslu) distributing free groceries to the public. If such a transaction exists in the capital of Indonesia, it of course is very possible to occur in other regions as well. Furthermore, a candidate also sometimes provides fresh funds to be distributed at dawn on election day to every person in targeted electoral districts. This dirty “dawn attack” (serangan fajar) technique is popular in Indonesia and has successfully risen some candidates to power.

But there is no free lunch. Even though constituents consider candidates’ donations a contribution, the candidate calls them investments, or political investments, to be exact. Like in business, investments in politics are meant to gain profits. Here is where the chronic disease of corruption among Indonesian politicians originates, as those elected will do anything to get their money back. As a consequence, corruption has become a common topic in Indonesia and news relating to it is on TV almost every day. From 2004 to 2012 alone, thousands of local officials and House members have been involved in graft cases.

The phenomenon of business cloaked in politics has undoubtedly smeared the face of Indonesian democracy. All parties in Indonesia must work seriously to find the best solutions to the country’s corruption plague. Business practices in Indonesia’s politics must be uprooted by — among other steps — giving political education to its citizens, imposing tough sanctions on naughty politicians, improving auditory and electoral systems, and if possible, returning to the old practice where regional heads are elected by the DPR. If Indonesia does not take the right medicine to eradicate the plague, democracy in the country will no longer be from the people, by the people, for the people, but from the elites, by the elites, for the elites. And that means for 2018 and the foreseeable future, politics in Indonesia will remain business as usual.

Muhammad Beni Saputra is an Indonesian writer as well as a lecturer at the State Islamic University Sulthan Thaha Saifudin Jambi, Indonesia