Indonesia’s parliamentary elections begin

A poll worker prepares ballot boxes in Jakarta on Wednesday on the eve of the parliamentary elections.
Voting has begun in Indonesia’s parliamentary elections, with 38 parties vying for one of 700 parliamentary seats. The outcome of the election will determine which parties can field presidential candidates for the July election.

Damin Sada, from the Islamic-based United Development Party, is one from among 12,000 election candidates. Smiling broadly, flanked by a photo illustration of U.S. President Barack Obama and Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden — his hands clasped over theirs — he says he is depicting himself as a broker of peace between the two sides and the billboard is part of his campaign to educate voters on the significant role that Indonesia can play in the global war on terror. It is Indonesia’s third direct election since the authoritarian regime of Suharto fell in 1998, in the wake of the Asian financial crisis. The outcome is not just significant in determining the country’s future — it could also have a global impact. Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim nation, and for now is a largely moderate and democratic one. But some analysts say there are signs that it is on the path to becoming a conservative and fundamentalist nation, moving away from democracy and toward sharia law, or Islamic law. One sign they cite is the government’s recent support for an anti-pornography bill that had had been pushed by more fundamentalist Islamic groups, including the highly influential Ulama Council. Andi Mallarangeng, a spokesman for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, said his party’s support for the anti-pornography measure — which passed in October — was a symbolic gesture to the Islamic groups that had called for it.

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However, Islamist parties are not expected to fare well this time around, partly because most voters are more concerned about economic issues, rather than religious or moral ones. In a destitute Jakarta neighborhood, a passing train shakes the tin corrugated homes as residents along the tracks casually move a few steps out of the way. Men sit around taking drags off their cigarettes, children run around without shoes, and an elderly woman peeps out from a window as she hangs laundry. Like any mother, 27-year-old Titis Setiawati wants to put a solid roof over her children’s heads. “I just want to see the cost of living go down,” she said, sitting in the shade of a tin roof, coddling a young child. “And I want my children to go to school.” Like 40 percent of Indonesia’s population, Setiawati and her family survive on less than $2 a day. The nation never recovered from the Asian financial crisis, and although Indonesia’s cost of living is less affected by today’s global economic downturn than other countries’, prices are going up. Adding to the troubles is Indonesia’s status as one of the most corrupt nations in the world, according to Transparency International. Those factors — corruption and the economy — are what experts say are allowing a conservative Muslim movement to gain momentum. That movement says the current government’s lack of piety is causing the nation’s problems. “The prize for the global conservative movement is Indonesia,” said political analyst Jeffery Winters. “If Indonesia were to move in a direction of becoming a much more conservative Islamic state, it would trigger a number of consequences.” Even before the casting of votes, there have been serious concerns about the legitimacy of the legislative election. The voting process is complicated: For the first time, Indonesians can vote for an individual within a party and not just for the party. New voting mechanisms are also causing confusion and could lead to an increased number of invalid ballots. There are allegations of fraudulent voter lists as well. Several students at the State Islamic University in Jakarta voiced their disillusionment with the current parties and candidates. “I choose not to vote,” said one named Shohib. “I am disappointed with the leaders.” “I want someone who could lead Indonesia to be better … who would hear people’s aspirations and actually do something about it,” said 18-year-old Wiendy Pranoto, a senior at Pesantran Al-Hamidiyah — an Islamic school outside Jakarta. Analysts warn that if the elections are viewed as illegitimate, voters will lose confidence, and anger that lingers below the surface could erupt. Still, there is much jubilation around the various campaign events. Democracy in Indonesia is new and exuberant. Superman and other pop culture heroes have become icons for the ballot, with at least five aspiring legislators superimposing their faces on the bodies of superheroes and using the images on their campaign posters. A few candidates, like Damin Sada, show themselves posing with Obama. Most political parties have been running on a platform of anti-corruption. The governing Democratic Party, led by Yudhoyono, has been taking action on corruption and is trying to capitalize on those gains. The president is also trying to appeal to the millions of young first-time voters by appearing at rallies with pop icons and singing popular songs, as well as a few he wrote himself. Current polls forecast that Yudhoyono’s party will be the only one to garner the necessary 20 percent of the 550 lower parliamentary seats — or 25 percent of the national vote — to nominate a presidential candidate. Other parties will likely form coalitions to put forward a candidate in the presidential race. That includes Golkar, the ruling party during Suharto’s regime and the party of current Vice President Jusuf Kalla. “Some party insiders worry it (Golkar) could suffer a massive embarrassment on April 9,” according to a recent commentary by A. Lin Neumann in the Jakarta Globe. The elections will also determine the makeup of Indonesia’s 132-member Regional Representatives Council, as well as its provincial, county and city assemblies. More than 70 percent of Indonesia’s 238 million people are expected to cast ballots. Analysts say that, barring a major crisis, Yudhoyono — who is known as “Mr. Clean” because of his anti-corruption efforts, and who is lauded for his handling of the 2004 tsunami recovery and leading an anti-terrorism fight — will probably win a second term. However, that will not mean the threat from Islamic parties will recede. “The trends are alarming,” Winters said. “The outcome for Indonesia is important in determining if the momentum — which is moving towards the direction of Indonesia going towards a Sharia Islamic state — whether that will continue or slow down.” Some of the Islamic parties are adopting more moderate positions to attract voters — a move that has caused internal divisions — particularly for PKS, or the Prosperous Justice Party. PKS legislator Zulkieflimansyah, known as Bang Zul, said the party “is between a rock and a hard place.” “We have to behave like a political party and also an Islamic movement,” he said. “By entering the political arena, it helps a lot to moderate the party and the movement.” That has led to a split between hard-liners and moderates in the PKS. But Bang Zul said the party’s Islamic scholars are having to change their hardline stance to deal with economic issues facing Indonesian voters. “When we are confronted by reality — how to provide job opportunities, improve public services, improve standard of living — then most of the scholars are becoming very realistic,” he said. “We are using the election as a test also (to see) whether our product is being bought by the voters.” The National Awakening Party, or PKB — which is based on Islamic traditions — said it intends to use the 2009 election to position itself for the next election in five years.

“We need to build a foundation now,” said the party’s vice secretary-general, Helmy Faishal Zaini. “So one way to do this is to join one of the senior people (politicians) with a junior person this time.” The year “2009 could be the beginning of the new generation” of politicians, he said.