The unexpected face of Indonesian politics

Author: Jeremy Gross, The Asia Foundation

Deep in Dolly, the red-light district of Surabaya, East Java, four women were sitting patiently. Onstage next to them were two dancers in tight, low-cut spandex costumes, swinging to the beat of dangdut music, while an old crooner with bouffant hair provided the vocals.

Indonesian electoral officials in Dolly, SurabayaAs the women waited, light from flashing Bintang beer signs shone upon their clean, pressed clothes. Ignoring the heat of the day, more and more punters poured into this dubious café, its black walls broken only by intermittent advertisements for Guinness beer. Within a short while, over 100 people were in the café, sitting on wobbly school-style chairs or standing wherever they could find a space, waiting with anticipation and excitement.

Suddenly, it was time for the four women sitting up front to take the stage. One woman loudly addressed the standing-room-only crowd that had gathered: ‘Friends and candidates who I love, my name is Reni Astuti and I am the candidate for PKS, the Prosperous Justice Party.’ She was joined by candidates from the Democrat Party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), and the Golkar Party.

Anyone who thinks Indonesian politics is boring should think again.

Political parties that believe mass rallies with pop stars are actually winning them votes should think again. And political pundits who believe voters are as cynical about politics as they are would also be wise to think again.

While meetings and debates like the one in Dolly were held in many different types of venues all across Indonesia, they all shared a similar kind of enthusiasm that comes from people hearing candidates speak straight to them in small groups. In Maros and Gowa, Malang and Banda Aceh, candidates had to talk about the things the voters asked about in each and every gathering. These were definitely not meetings where politicians could get away with nicely-worded platitudes or generalities.

The meetings were organized by local civil society organizations with the goal of giving Indonesia’s voters a real opportunity to hear candidates speak to the issues they wanted to hear about. The events were nothing the political parties could stage-manage, nor were they laden with the formalities or protocols the General Elections Commission (KPU) normally insists upon.

Back in the red-light district, our first candidate was saying, ‘In Surabaya, my vision will be to fight for our needs so that social justice is achieved for the people, especially for women. Data shows that there are 33,000 poor in Surabaya. More often, the most disadvantaged of those are women.’

Redatini from Golkar followed, ‘My mission is to ensure pro-women budgeting. When kids are prosperous, then mothers will be prosperous.’ Maybe it was meant to be the other way around. For Ivy from the Democrat Party, ‘My vision and mission is gender equality in economy, politics, and culture.’

Then it was time for questions from the floor. A person in the audience called out, ‘In a red-light district, there is a lot of violence against women and children, so they need more attention and to be better protected, especially when so many are infected by HIV. I think the red-light district should be legalized as long as there is no trafficking. Do you agree to legalize this area?’ Other questions followed about trafficking, child protection, flooding, polygamy, reproductive healthcare, and care for the elderly.

Interestingly, while no candidate said they would close Dolly, the largest red-light district area in Indonesia, candidates were also free from having to respond to any difficult questions about the global economy and its impact on Surabaya, or their budgeting priorities. Perhaps it would have been very different if, alongside the civil society activists, Dolly residents, and regulars, there had also been some business people in the audience.

Such enthusiasm to hear candidates respond to questions that concern people in their everyday lives remains high; there was certainly little sign of political apathy in this café. But at the same time, throughout Indonesia, legislators continue to be detained, arrested, and sentenced for corruption. Perhaps one needs to distinguish between political apathy, disappointment, and disenchantment in what they see happening in national and local legislatures around the country.

Events like this debate for women candidates in Surabaya have traditionally been all too rare. Maybe, if such events were more accessible to the wider public, there would be a larger demand to attend. As one guest said following this debate, she was now going to vote for the woman she thought was the best candidate – and that candidate was not from a party she would have otherwise voted for.

For over two hours in Dolly, voters questioned their candidates directly. When the candidates had nothing else to say, the women in spandex took center-stage again, and the old man crooned as they swayed to the music.

This article originally appeared on In Asia, the blog of the Asia Foundation, and may be found here.

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