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Sexy Indonesia: politics with a side of cleavage

Watch: Can a scantily-clad singer move Indonesian voters?

Jupe, or Julia Perez. (Aubrey Belford/GlobalPost)

PACITAN, Indonesia — In Indonesia, a singing politician is hardly a novelty.

Candidates belting out karaoke are a common sight and even the dour president, ex-general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has a string of albums under his belt.

But the cleavage-out, hip-thrusting style of model/actress/singer Julia Perez hardly fits the usual script. The 29-year-old, popularly known as Jupe (pronounced: joo-pay), is causing controversy in Indonesia by running for local government in President Yudhoyono’s home district in Pacitan, in eastern Java.

Final candidates for the position of district head, or bupati, are yet to be decided and the election will not be until December. But Jupe’s candidacy doesn’t go down well with many conservatives who like to see Muslim-majority Indonesia as a moral nation. This is, after all, the woman whose last album, Kamasutra, came with free condoms and whose biggest hit, Belah Duren (Splitting-open the Durian), is laden with graphic innuendo:

More importantly, her candidacy has become the latest focal point for fretting over the spread of celebrities in Indonesian politics — a symptom, critics say, of a system where venal politicians and policy-free parties have left democracy looking hollow just over a decade after the 1998 fall of dictator Suharto.

Reached by a narrow ribbon of road through lush, forest-covered limestone hills, Pacitan itself is a rustic, slow-paced place. Most people live off farming or fishing. The main tourist draws are some caves and a beautiful, windswept and flotsam-strewn beach that is unsafe to swim.

The day I turned up was meant to be a big appearance by Jupe, but at the last minute, she was a no-show. Sutikno, the local head of the Hanura party of ex-general Wiranto (who has been indicted, but never tried over crimes against humanity in East Timor), is open about his disappointment. He speaks darkly of Jupe receiving “extraordinary pressure” from unnamed individuals not to come.

Still, Sutikno is upbeat about Jupe. The incumbent from Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party, who was elected in Indonesia’s first local elections in 2005, is a failure, he says. A coalition of nine parties, including some Islamic parties, is wooing Jupe to challenge the Democrats.

“The law doesn’t say sexy artists can’t be candidates,” Sutikno says, using the Indonesian catch-all term for female starlets.

“Jupe came and I tested her. She was dressed like this,” he says, smoking a clove cigarette and gesturing the outline of a tank top and hotpants. “I was happy. If she came wearing a headscarf I wouldn’t have been pleased, she would’ve been faking it.”