JAKARTA — For Rizal, the election season is less about participating in the future of his country and more about making some extra cash.
Rizal’s only source of income is the occasional motorbike ride he might provide for someone looking to cut quickly through Jakarta’s infamous traffic. He makes a few dollars a day at the most.
So when a political party operative knocked on his door offering a few dollars and some gas money to attend a candidate’s rally, he eagerly signed up.
He was told to meet at the campaign’s local office, where hundreds of others from his neighborhood were already lining up on motorbikes or filling buses, all of them decked out in political swag.
Rizal said he had been approached by just about every political party competing in the April 9 parliamentary election — 38 in total. And he has attended rallies for almost all of them.
“For me it is all about the money,” said Rizal, 27. “I use the money to buy some drinks and have some fun, that’s it. The election season here is a chance for people to make some extra money and have a good time. For the political parties it is apparently a chance to throw their money away.”
Campaigns will pay anywhere between $2 and $5 for someone to attend a rally, and up to $15 to shave their head and paint the candidate’s name or logo on their bodies.
This version of “street money” has a long tradition in Indonesian politics and has proved an easy advertising technique. Huge crowds regularly turn out at busy intersections, spending hours screaming their support at whoever happens to be nearby. The rallies, which are usually parades of motorbikes and buses, snarl traffic for hours.
The practice is not unique to Indonesia. It is found the world over, including in the United States. Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles are famous for their street money politics, where a candidate doles out cash to ward bosses who say they use it to offset the cost of gasoline and meals for their volunteers. Barack Obama, in fact, shocked the political establishment in Philadelphia last year when he refused to distribute money among the city’s Democratic foot soldiers to ensure they turned out the vote.
Indonesian officials, recognizing that elections here have become more about personalities and turnouts than about the issues, are beginning to discuss the possibility of regulating the practice. The National Election Commission has even suggested banning the ubiquitous rallies in favor of televised debates.
But the tradition is so ingrained in Indonesian culture that analysts said it is doubtful things will change anytime soon. Although democracy here is only 10 years old, Indonesians have been voting for decades. The country’s longtime authoritarian ruler, Suharto, would hold rigged elections every five years. His political party, Golkar, would simply buy the votes necessary to win and the practice, to a lesser degree, persists.
“Indonesians have been poorly educated about elections,” said Mohammad Qodari, a political analyst and pollster. “They don’t extend their vote for programs or candidates but for handouts. It has just gotten carried away. Even after the Suharto regime was toppled, it still happens. It will take a lot of effort from political activists to change these misconceptions.”
It is the election’s worst-kept secret that parties still engage in vote-buying. A few dollars and a free meal is enough for many poor Indonesians. And almost every party is guilty.
They target poor neighborhoods like the urban slum where Rizal lives in South Jakarta. He said all his neighbors take money to attend rallies or in exchange for their votes. He said political parties are considering posting operatives outside polling stations with cellphones, requiring voters to take a picture to prove they voted for the right candidate before they get paid.
Gerindra, the political vehicle of Prabowo Subianto, a controversial ex-general running for president, has even given out health care benefits in exchange for support, which surely accounts for a part of its 13 million-strong membership, an incredible feat for a party that is only a year old.
Qodari said it could be several more elections before this culture of handouts is finally stopped, though he acknowledged that some progress has been made. For the first time this year, he said, campaigners are going door to door spreading campaign platforms, agendas and plans for the future — not just cash, fried rice and t-shirts.
“I believe, in the long run, there will be some improvements, Indonesia is still, in many ways, an immature democracy, though it has made incredible progress in a short amount of time,” Qodari said. “As law enforcement improves and corruption decreases, the elections will become much cleaner. But I don’t see it happening for at least another three or four elections.”
Other recent Peter Gelling stories on Indonesia:
Beware the road pirates
Watching for disaster
Indonesia's love shacks