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Indonesia failing to inject energy into upcoming election

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Indonesia's presidential candidates for 2024 (left-right) Anies Baswedan, Prabowo Subianto, Ganjar Pranowo (Images via Wikimedia Commons)

Is it possible to overdose on politics? In Indonesia, yes. There’s a month left before the 14 February deciding date — and the signs are showing wear and tear.

That's because the kerbside vinyl banners featuring the faces of fist-shaking or praying candidates (it's difficult to do both) are getting flipped and ripped by the monsoon winds and rains now drenching Java. 

The campaigners' teams aren't mustering much energy to repair, suggesting funds are as exhausted as enthusiasm.

Apart from social media, Indonesians get their voting info from the giant billboards polluting the streetscape — and TV.

The third of five scheduled debates between the three main contenders for the presidency was screened last Sunday — a blessing for insomniacs.

U.S.-educated academic and former Jakarta Governor Dr Anies Baswedan, one-time Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo and cashiered General Prabowo Subianto tried to keep the show serious.

But the producers schooled in TV games wanted a flashy fun event, as though the winner would be fanfared with a beribboned new motorbike rather than the prize of running the world's fourth-most populous country.

Apart from having more Muslims than any other nation while remaining constitutionally secular, Indonesia is also the third largest democracy – of a sort – though only in this century.

For the 32 preceding years, Indonesia was an autocracy-cum-kleptocracy known as Orde Baru (New Order) run by General Suharto, who ousted founding President Sukarno after a 1965 anti-Communist coup.

The Economist Intelligence Unit recently rated Indonesia a “flawed democracy” because of its limited accountability to voters; party leaders stitch up deals without consulting members.

One expert has been blunter with the label a state of disorder.  He reasons that President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has ‘partnered with corrupt politicians, military figures, bureaucrats and businesses, who then used their influence to repurpose democratic institutions for the interests of their survival’.

Veteran activist Max Lane writes of the elites’ ‘satisfaction with the current political status quo and the state-assisted and corruption-lubricated support for the existing private sector, dominated by national and local oligarchies’.

Just as Donald Trump's villainy doesn't seem to worry GOP supporters in the U.S., Widodo's alleged flaws haven't stopped him from recording popularity ratings above 80%. That’s largely because he used to look like an ordinary bloke with dirt under his fingernails — one of us. No longer.

Some readers may recall he took then-PM Malcolm Turnbull to a market in 2015 where the two leaders were swamped by fans. 

That blusukan (impromptu visit) style has faded with tightened security, but his successes have been substantial: New toll roads, railway lines and airports, plus health insurance that so far seems to be doing better than Medicare in getting the poor into surgeries.

The Constitution limits the president to two five-year terms. So his eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, 36, has abandoned the PDI-P Party of himself and his father.

Instead, he’s coupled as the vice-presidential hopeful with Prabowo Subianto, 72, from the Right-wing Gerindra (Great Indonesia) Party in a bid to create a dynasty. Nepotism is rife.

To those raised in the political religion of the Westminster System, this arrangement must have been made under a full moon. But it works in Indonesia because personalities are far more important than policies.

Gibran is young enough to be Prabowo’s grandson, so the image-makers have been erasing lines and creases on one man’s phiz — and adding to the other.

The TV producers thought it better to get academics to put questions in sealed envelopes instead of asking seasoned journos to toss curlies. This resulted in queries about geospatial technology, which your correspondent can guarantee is not foremost in the minds of hungry voters counting their rupiah.

This didn't matter because the candidates just said what they wanted, rarely bothering to explain how they'd fix tough issues, like the nation's fading food security. Once an exporter of rice, Indonesia now relies on India and Vietnam to fill almost 280 million tummies.

Unrestrained building of homes and roads has seen once super-fertile lands covered by concrete and asphalt, an irreversible loss.

Polls in Indonesia are small and unreliable, so the indicators that Prabowo is way in front should be treated with servers of salt. But he seems to be outspending his opponents so getting more publicity.

His elders-know-best appeal is that he'll return Indonesia to a state of low prices and little social disorder because an expanded military will fix everything. In the mid-1980s, extra-judicial killings called Petrus cleaned up real or imagined criminal gangs in big cities, leaving corpses in the streets for early risers to contemplate.

Prabowo’s opponents try to remind voters that the divorced son-in-law of Soeharto was banned from the U.S. for many years because of alleged human rights abuses, including the 1998 kidnapping and disappearance of protesting students. He responds by saying that’s stuff from the past and it’s time to look ahead.

Like Trump, his wild assertions that Indonesia is being exploited by outsiders determined to break up the “unitary State” and plunder its mineral wealth go largely unchallenged in the media.

Voting is not compulsory. The 2019 Election saw a turnout of around 83% when Jokowi trounced Prabowo by ten points. The loser’s supporters then rioted with eight killed and around 300 injured.  

Instead of being condemned, Prabowo was rewarded with the Defence Ministry — and that's not a misprint. With this platform, he's been trying to show that he's no longer a brutal authoritarian relic from the Orde Baru, but a cuddly gramps.

If the Valentine’s Day vote isn’t a massacre with no one contender scoring more than 50%, there’ll be a run-off on 26 June. Then the electorate will have to find the energy to do it all again. 

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist living in East Java.

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