Religion, Ethnicity and Popularity in Indonesia's Provincial Elections

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A close look at how provincial elections are fought in Indonesia suggests that the determinants of success at the local level often have little to do with party affiliation.

In North Sumatra, as in many other socially heterogeneous provinces in the outer islands, religion and ethnicity are far more important. The Muslim Javanese community in the province, for example, is surprisingly large. Consisting of around 27 per cent of the population, it is second only to the native (and predominantly Christian) Batak community. There are also other minority groups, including significant numbers of Malays.

Political contests therefore tend to be battles between rival ethnic and religious coalitions.

In North Sumatra, the Prosperous Justice Party’s (PKS) Mr Gatot Pujo Nugroho was opposed by Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-P) candidate Effendi Simbolon, a Christian whose running mate for deputy governor was a Javanese Muslim. Mr Gatot did not select a Christian as his deputy, but he did make sure that his partner was from a totally different ethnic group from his own.

“The majority of votes won by Mr Gatot didn’t come from PKS voters, but rather because people know he has a Javanese background,” lecturer Faisal Mahrawa of North Sumatra University told the media earlier this month.
A similar ethnic-based coalition-building exercise can be expected later this year in the Maluku gubernatorial elections.

In the more homogeneous provinces on Java, elections are little more than popularity contests.
Mr Hendro Prasetyo of political consultancy Lembaga Survei Indonesia points out that in West Java, where the Sundanese form a majority of the electorate, entertainers were among the strongest contenders in last month’s election.

Incumbent governor Ahmad “Aher” Heryawan teamed up with well-known actor and director Deddy Mizwar, who ran for the position of deputy governor. Apart from the PKS, the two were also supported by the United Development Party.

They were opposed by a team led by incumbent deputy governor Yusuf Macan Effendi. Supported by the moderate Islamist National Mandate Party and the National Awakening Party (PKB), as well as the secular nationalist Democratic Party, Mr Yusuf was a popular TV actor in the 1990s.

Ms Rieke Dyah Pitaloka, another aspirant for governor, was a well-known actress before turning to politics.

In East Java, local politics takes on a slightly different flavour.

This province is the home of the influential Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), a traditionalist Sunni Muslim organisation that focuses on social and educational activities. Although the NU is not formally involved in politics, many of its leaders are. Provincial elections therefore sometimes become contests between rival NU leaders.

As a result of this, parties closely associated with NU, such as the PKB, can face serious internal problems. Currently, the East Java branch of the party supports Ms Khofifah Indar Parawansa, head of NU’s women’s wing, as the organisation’s gubernatorial candidate for the Aug 29 polls. But since Ms Khofifah lost in 2008, the national headquarters has been considering the possibility of supporting another leading figure in NU, such as incumbent vice-governor Saifullah Yusuf.

Central Java, notes Mr Hendro, “has often been a battleground for prominent politicians with national aspirations”. In this case, PDI-P candidates are usually members of the national Parliament. Current governor Bibit Waluyo is a retired army general who was once the Jakarta district commander.

Mr Bibit’s opponents in the May 26 gubernatorial elections are likely to include the PDI-P’s Mr Ganjar Pranowo, deputy chairman of the House of Representatives Commission II, which oversees home affairs.

Political leaders such as former PKS head Hidayat Nurwahid may like people to believe the support or opposition of their respective parties plays a critical role in the minds of voters. But the reality – at least at the local level – can be very different.

(C) Singapore Press Holdings Limited 

Key Political Risks

Asia is the fastest growing region in the world, and is likely to remain so in 2013. However, a number of risks cloud the picture.

The good news is that domestic demand in the region remains strong and should continue to cushion the impact of weaker external demand on overall economic growth. The completion of national elections in Japan and South Korea in December 2012 should also help reduce political uncertainties. 

But Asian governments will need to guard against the adverse impact of prolonged easy financial conditions on inflation.

Rising inequality also continues to threaten social stability. Ethnic and religious rivalries remain just below the surface in many countries. When combined with government corruption and (in some countries) high youth unemployment, this could become a deadly mix. This seems particularly true of China.

Territorial disputes also require close monitoring. Much diplomatic activity in the new year is likely to be centered on finding ways to reduce tensions over resource-rich islands in the South China Sea, where Beijing's claims overlap with those of Japan, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian states. South Korea and Japan also have rival territorial claims.

North Korea remains the wild card. Inclined to believe its own propaganda, Pyongyang's new leadership could miscalculate, making belligerent moves that plunge the region into a military conflict that nobody wants.

About Me

My name is Dr Bruce Gale and I am a senior writer with the Singapore Straits Times. I studied at  LaTrobe University (BA Hons) in Melbourne and later at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Monash University (MA). My PhD thesis, which focussed on Malaysian political economy, was completed at the Malaysian National University (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia) in 1987.

From 1988 to 2003 I was Singapore Regional Manager for the Hong Kong based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC). 

I have written several books and articles on Southeast Asian affairs, including Political Risk and International Business: Case Studies in Southeast Asia (Pelanduk Publications, 2007). Books on language include Mastering Indonesian: a guide to reading Indonesian language newspapers (Pelanduk Publications, 2008)

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