Lessons in Southeast Asia elections

9 April 2004

With its mockery of the democratic process, this week’s election deserves a vote of no confidence.

The sight of former president Soeharto happily walking to a nearby polling booth to vote perhaps more than any other event demonstrated the absurdity of this week’s Indonesian election.

I, like many others no doubt, had assumed that the billionaire former dictator was bedridden. He had after all been declared unfit to stand trial on charges of corruption. Once again, it was shown that in Indonesia you can get away with practically anything. And that is where the near-futility of Indonesian elections comes in.

Democracy is a good thing. But what is the point of it when the state apparatus is so corrupt that most laws are subverted to the point of irrelevancy? Who cares whether this or that leader is elected when corruption will mean that their policy platforms are unlikely to be implemented, and certainly not in the way that they would intend?

And so Indonesia’s elections this week have not been about policies so much as parties. Party supporters behave like football hooligans, parading in the streets on the backs of trucks and buses, running red lights and generally creating a huge public nuisance.

Contrary to expectations, no party workers’ lives were lost in rioting but at least 10 were lost in traffic accidents.

Many supporters hired themselves out for the occasion. Reportedly, the going rate was 50,000 rupiah ($A7.60) per person to attend a political rally. It’s a good day out for a typical low-wage Indonesian family. They can earn some pocket money, probably pick up several free T-shirts, and receive free transport.

The T-shirts are a huge part of the process. Many were made in the clothing factories around the West Java city of Bandung, but even with this, Indonesian industry faced competition from China: to cut costs the party of President Megawati Soekarnoputri reportedly placed huge orders for its bright red T-shirts with factories based in China. I asked an Indonesian gardener who was wearing a white Democracy Party T-shirt why he supported that party. “Oh no,” he said, “I know nothing about politics. I just like the shirt.” If little else, at least this week’s election will have clothed several million Indonesians.

Democracy is a good thing. But what is the point of it when the state apparatus is so corrupt that most laws are subverted to the point of irrelevancy?

Malaysia, too, has just faced a general election but whereas the streets of Malaysia’s cities were festooned with political bunting, the streets of most Indonesian cities and towns were absolutely covered. Twenty-four political parties stood in the Indonesian election, and so each party sought to line most thoroughfares with party flags and posters. The consequence was one of the biggest messes that I’ve ever seen.

The elections brought out a splendid range of interests. The Christian-based Peace and Prosperous Party held rallies that were akin to revival meetings, at which party leaders announced that only God can save Indonesia, so let the Son of God lead Indonesia (this in the world’s largest Islamic country). A well-educated Indonesian told me that Akbar Tandjung, chairman of the leading Golkar party and a Muslim Batak from north Sumatra, had such good staying power in Indonesian politics despite corruption allegations because he has “powerful magic”, and for that reason he would be supporting him.

What do most people do when they are too poorly educated to understand policy platforms and when the policies are largely irrelevant anyway because they will be subverted by corruption? They vote for candidates who are already known to them – film stars and the like. And so a vote then becomes an expression of approval for the candidates’ past career decisions.

That is how movie actor Joseph Estrada became president of the Philippines. A corrupt, womanising drunk, he was ultimately impeached. That is how Megawati became President too. Her main, indeed only, attribute is that her father had been president some 30 years earlier.

The Philippines seems destined to repeat its efforts with its elections in May. Fernando Poe jnr is the leading candidate to be president. The high-school dropout is yet to offer any suggestion as to how he would run the country, and has never held public office. But he is a movie star, having appeared in almost 300 movies. Poe’s running mate is a former television anchor.

The elections in Malaysia two weeks ago were remarkable too, but for different reasons. The opposition Islamic PAS party that had held power in two states lost power in one and almost in the other, and was largely wiped out federally.

So, too, was Keadilan, the party set up by the wife of jailed former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar’s wife almost lost her seat too, and in fact did in the first round of counting. But she won the seat on a recount. That a recount was possible, and lead to the reinstatement of an important opposition figure, says a lot about how the game is played in Malaysia.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Malaysian poll was the fact that former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad played almost no role in it, either in its lead-up or its aftermath. For all the noise in the foreign media that Mahathir was some sort of dictator, his resignation from politics has proved to be exactly that.

In this, Malaysia provides a lesson not so much for Indonesia or the Philippines but for Singapore. Mahathir said he would go, and he went. When long-serving prime minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew said he was going, he ended up back in the prime minister’s office in the role of Senior Minister. Lee did not step down so much as aside. And so Singapore’s current Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong finds himself sandwiched between Lee Kuan Yew and Lee’s son Lee Hsien Loong, who serves as Deputy Prime Minister.

The term democracy covers a multitude of sins. That’s nowhere more true than in South-East Asia.

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