Friday, April 2, 2010

Broad appeal vs core support

Tuesday April 7, 2009


Dynastic ambitions intertwine with Indonesian politics in Java as key players get ready to slug it out at Thursday’s polls.

ON THURSDAY, the world’s third largest democracy – Indonesia – goes to the polls. With over 171 million registered voters, this will probably be one of the most-anticipated elections ever held there.

Having followed the key players intermittently since the beginning of the year, I’ve concluded the first of the republic’s two-part electoral process (the presidential race is in July) in Central Java, spending time between the two great courtly cities of Solo and Jogjakarta, where some of the toughest and most intriguing Parliamentary contests will be taking place.

Solo (or Surakarta) straddles the Bengawan Solo, Java’s longest and most important river. It has been a vital trading route for centuries, carrying textiles, rice, teak and pepper on an eight-day journey to the port of Gresik on the Java Sea.

The centuries-old trade, along with the presence of the two royal houses – the Mangkunegaran and the Kasunanan – made Solo an important and prestigious centre for the Javanese throughout the Dutch colonial era.

Indeed in 1911, Sarekat Islam, a self-help association of pribumi traders, was founded in a city that is still buoyed by the remnants of an extremely vibrant commercial culture.

Encircled by rice fields, the city of Solo also happens to be in a volcanic region, with Gunung Lawu to the east and the Gunungs Merapi and Merbabu to the west. This had made its densely-populated land, which is also watered by the Bengawan, extremely fertile; and the city has been dubbed “Solo-raya”.

It’s an agricultural region with the added boon of a historically vibrant manufacturing base (witness the batik makers of the city’s Laweyan district) that fed into the dynamic trading tradition mentioned earlier.

Complex, diverse and multi-layered, “Solo-raya” has also been a vital vote-bank for Ibu Megawati Su karnoputri and her party, the PDI-P.

Syncretic Javanese beliefs continue to shape everyday lives in “Solo-raya” and the region’s large urban proletariat and rural population – thewong cilik (or little people) – remain ardent admirers of Bung Karno’s populist rhetoric.

Seemingly in acknowledgment of the fact that 2009 will be her last stab at the presidency, Megawati has tried to affect a regeneration of the party’s fortunes; and since the Sukarno name (and bloodline) is so critical in this respect, her own daughter – and presumed successor – Puan Maharani will be standing for a legislative seat in “Solo-raya”.

Having said that, the most impressive new face in the PDI-P line-up, and a possible rival to Sukarno’s mantle, is former student activist Budiman Sujatmiko. He is standing in the city of Cilacap in the westernmost end of the province of Central Java.

Still, Puan Maharani’s presence along with that of presidential hopeful Hidayat Nurwahid, the head of the ultra-conservative PKS, makes the contest in “Solo-raya” all the more interesting.

At the same time, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s painstakingly-crafted message of professionalism, moderation – and not to mention his vehement anti-corruption campaign – has transformed his Demokrat party into a strong local contender.

Moreover, his own son, Edhie Baskoro Yudhoyono, is standing as a Demokrat candidate in the adjoining constituency of Pacitan, which also happens to be the president’s birth-place.

As dynastic ambitions intertwine with national politics, many observers will be watching the results in this corner of the republic to get a sense of popular sentiment and trends going forward.

Does the Sukarno name still hold sway over the Indonesian electorate? Can Ibu Megawati reach beyond her core, nominally Muslim, abang ansupporters?

Will the Yudhoyonos succeed in establishing themselves as a new political dynasty? Can SBY challenge Ibu Megawati on her own home turf?

Can Pak Hidayat steer his staunchly Wahabi brethren in PKS into an accommodation with Javanese culture and thereby expand the appeal of his hitherto campus-based party to propel himself towards the presidency?

Suharto-era Solo (the birth-place of his wife Ibu Tien) was a relative boom town as Jogjakarta, with its virulently anti-establishment student population, was sidelined.

Instead, Solo and its environs became a major centre of influence and prestige for the New Order’s elite, so much so that countless senior government figures (or more importantly their wives), such as Harmoko the communications czar and presidential-aspirant Wiranto, were to come from Solo.

A legacy of that period is the city’s great wealth. As Pak Mulyanto, the editor-in-chief of the leading local newspaper Solopos, explains: “Solo is the second largest market for luxury cars in the country after Jakarta, ahead of Bandung and Medan, which are far larger cities.”

But the combination of money, power and influence hasn’t always been a happy one. In 1998 as simultaneous riots shook Java, Solo was among the worst-affected of its cities with scores of major buildings and department stores torched in a wave of violence and destruction that was to set the city back by nearly a decade.

Finally, the highly-charged electoral contests in Central Java reveal a fundamental difference between figures such as Ibu Megawati, Gus Dur and Amien Rais with current President Yudhoyono that underscores larger, national divisions.

All three leaders, key figures in the Reformasi process that led to Suharto’s ouster, have depended on core followers drawn from Indonesia’s political and socio-cultural streams, or aliran: Megawati with her abangan base, Gus Dur with his Nahdatul Ullama supporters and Amien Rais with the Muhamma diyah.

By way of contrast, President Yudhoyono has no core aliran or socio-cultural base.

Instead, he has built his appeal (and that of his party) by reaching out to the new constituencies that have emerged since 1998 – teachers, civil servants, small businessmen and women (especially housewives) – playing on their frustrations with the lawlessness, inertia and corruption that Suharto’s fall engendered.

SBY’s strategy means that his voter base reaches across the republic.

His coalition is a very modern and constantly evolving alliance of shared interests that he has adroitly assembled over the past five years.

Nevertheless, these voters aren’t wildly fanatical in their support, unlike his rival’s partisans. Rational and level-headed, they appear to be saying, “well, you haven’t done a bad job and we know you’re sincere so we’ll give you and your party a second term”.

Interestingly, Hidayat Nurwahid, Puan Maharani’s main competitor in “Solo-raya” is endeavouring to take very much the same tack – steering himself into the middle of the political spectrum in an attempt to project himself as either a potential running mate for, or even an alternative to, SBY.

Whether Pak Hidayat manages this manoeuvre or if Puan Maharani will be able to cement her place in the PDI-P’s succession will be revealed on Friday.

One thing is clear: we should never doubt Indonesia’s capacity to deliver political surprises.

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