Center for Strategic Communication

by Mark Woodward*

Arriving at the Polls

Arriving at the Polls

It has now been nearly eleven years, and three general elections, since the chaotic days of the Indonesian democratic transition of 1998. At that time many observers questioned the viability of the new democracy, particularly in light of the fact that the transition took place in the midst of an economic and political crisis that left millions with out steady jobs and in which thousands died in outbreaks of ethnic and religious. Some western pundits questioned whether democracy could work in the world’s most populous Muslim nation because of the supposed incompatibility of Islam and popular sovereignty. Some Islamist radicals vowed to do everything possible to keep it from working.

Fortunately the naysayers were wrong. A decade later Indonesia is well on the way to being a consolidated democracy, if it is not already one. Friday was Election Day. The polls opened at seven in the morning and closed at noon.  In the neighborhood where I live election officials began announcing results over a public address system at 12:41. PM.



Complete results will probably not be known for several weeks but the process apparently worked remarkably well. The election was well organized, efficient and quiet. There were no demonstrations, no violence and, in accordance with Indonesian law, no elections signs or other forms of campaigning within sight of polling places.  There were scattered incidents in remote parts of the country and in some places the election was postponed because ballots were not delivered. This is unfortunate, but not surprising in a country with more than half a million polling places.

Because Election Day is a national holiday, most shops, schools and businesses were closed. People came to be polls in large numbers. Because there is no absentee voting some people traveled long distances to cast votes in their native villages. Others took advantage of the long weekend to take vacations because tomorrow in Good Friday and that is also a national holiday.

Purple Thumb

Purple Thumb

While there will certainly be charges and counter-charges, I did not see any signs of  obvious voting irregularities. Voters were required to present their national identity cards, which were checked against an official list. All the ballots were marked by hand and counted by members of the local branch of the election commission. Each voter was required to dip a thumb or finger in purple ink to prevent multiple voting.

One of the most dramatic changes that has taken place in Indonesia over the last decade in Indonesia is that most people are no longer afraid of the police. They do not need to be. There were no signs of intimidation. There were unarmed police at polling stations, most of whom sat chatting and joking with voters snacking, drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. One of the officers asked me to sign a guest book and encouraged me to talk with voters and photograph the voting. Given the country’s totalitarian past, the behavior of the police was remarkable.

Chatting with Polics

Chatting with Police

Today was the first of two rounds of elections. People chose local, provincial and national level legislators from among thirty-eight parties and hundreds of candidates There were four very long ballots that some people found excessively complicated. But this is democracy. Despite regulations intended to limit the number of parties, thirty eight, ranging from fundamentalist Muslim and Christian parties to left leaning populists to centrist secular nationalists qualified, and all contested the election. The second round, in which the President and Vice President will be chosen is  scheduled for July 8th.

Indonesian Politics is Now Local

The most important change in this year’s election is that voters now choose individual candidates, not party lists. This has increased the importance of local issues, and decreased the importance and power of national party elites. For the first time voters can “spit” tickets. This has changed the nature of election campaigns. In the past campaigns were conducted primarily at the national level. Local campaigns were primarily “get out the base” efforts based as much on patronage and party loyalty as issues. It is still the case that some candidates, especially those from Muslim and Christian parties, appeal primarily to “primordial loyalties” of ethnicity and religion.  The new electoral rules have, however, meant that many voters chose candidates who they know personally, or by reputation. Candidates featured local as well as national celebrities in their print and television ads, and some appeared in distinctively local ethnic costumes. In Yogyakarta this meant that some appealed to the city’s history as a center of Islamic modernism, and others to royalist sentiments that are still powerful here.

Patronage is still very important. In Yogyakarta incumbents boasted about the services that they had provided for their constituents. Challengers promised to do even more. Campaigns also included a much higher level of face to face interaction than in the past. In Indonesia is the called sosalisasi (socialization) which means roughly getting to know the people. At the national and provincial level this means formal meetings with local leaders. At the local level it means meeting people in their homes In both cases it is fund raising in reverse. It is seeking supporters by demonstrating that one has the ability to be an effective patron.

This is how it works at the local level. One evening in February a was visiting a couple who I have known for at least a decade. One teaches at one of the local universities, the other runs a small business. They are middle class, but by no means wealthy. Their house is a meeting place for friends, relatives and students. On any given weekend twenty or more often pass through in the course of a day. Everyone sits and chats, snacks, drinks coffee and most of the men smoke cigarettes.

On this particular evening a candidate for the local level legislature, who runs a small restaurant near the University campus, dropped in unannounced.  He was of the same general religious orientation (Progressive Islam) and ethnic background as my friends. He brought a stack of campaign literature, including instructions on how to find his name on the ballot, and enough food for at least a dozen people, which he had his driver carry to the kitchen, seemingly to avoid the impression that he was bringing a rather expensive gift. We sat for about an hour, snacked on fruit and cassava chips, drank coffee, smoked cigarettes (only the men, very few Indonesian women smoke) and talked about politics in general and the importance of Islam as a moral, rather than explicitly political, force in Indonesian life. After he excused himself and went on to his next stop we all sat around on the floor and enjoyed a very nice and completely unexpected free meal. Several people commented that this was probably “corrupt food.” No one really cared.

The candidate was not so naïve as to think that he was buying votes. Votes can be and are bought in Indonesian elections, for as little as 5,000 Rupiah (50 cents).  Buying votes is not the way to win elections because there is no way to be certain that the person you pay will actually vote for you. Indeed, I know people who brag about the fact that they have sold their votes to several candidates, and not actually voted for any of them.  He was trying to win support from people he believed, correctly, to be influential in the community and who he hoped would encourage others to vote for him. In this case, it did not work.

Most Indonesians recognize that in a country this large and this diverse there are only two possible governmental systems: democracy and authoritarian rule. Some are frustrated with the slow pace of change, the fact that the economy has yet to fully recover from the collapse of the late 1990s and the fact that many political leaders are more interested in their own power than in the people’s wellbeing. Very few, however, would welcome a return to the authoritarian past. Pre-election polls and preliminary results indicate that the most likely winners are secular and progressive Islamic parties and radical Islamists will garner less than ten per cent of the vote, despite mounting very high profile and expensive campaigns.

Indonesian democracy is not perfect. Democracy is not perfect anywhere. I learned about how democracy and political campaigns work in Chicago in the early 1970s when His Honor Richard J. Daley (the first) was mayor. Compared to those elections, today’s vote in Yogyakarta was remarkably, free, fair and clean. It is now after three in the afternoon and they are still counting votes. It is not clear who will be elected. This was certainly not the case in Chicago in the 1970s.

*Mark Woodward is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Arizona State University.  He is currently Visiting Professor of religious Studies at the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies, Gadjah Mada University and Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University, both in Yogyakarta Indonesia.