FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

The Invisible Hand at the Voting Booth

According to many observers, this year’s Indonesian elections can be summed up by the informal slogan of Bill Clinton’s 1996 U.S. presidential campaign: It’s the economy, stupid!

It’s easy to understand why economic issues might weigh heavily on the minds of Indonesian voters. Unlike its neighbors, Indonesia has yet to see meaningful recovery from the 1997-1998 Asian economic crisis. According to the United Nations Development Program, the Indonesian economy shrank by more than 15% in the first six months of the crisis. Poverty more than doubled, from 12% in 1996 to at least 25% in 1998. Today, more than 18% of Indonesians live below the poverty line, more than half live on less than $3 per day, and 20% are unemployed.

Just prior to Indonesia’s general elections in April, Indonesian news magazine Tempo observed, “Voters generally see the biggest challenge facing the country in the future to be economic recovery, at least to the levels in the golden era of the New Order,” referring to the period of dictator Suharto’s government.

Sylvia Tiwon, Associate Professor of Indonesian at the University of California at Berkeley, takes issue with the reportedly widespread nostalgia for Suharto-era prosperity and security. “There seems to be a memory lapse about the financial crisis during the Suharto years,” she observes. “Many people say that things were better during the New Order. They don’t seem to relate the crash and the aftermath of the crash, including the unrest and violence, to the New Order’s economic policies and five-year development plans, and what the huge national debt (private and public) did to the economy.” The day before the general elections, the Jakarta Post’s Imanuddin Razak wrote that Suharto was only “relatively successful” in “bringing prosperity to some groups of Indonesians,” while failing to establish institutions to consolidate and build upon those gains.

However misguided, New Order nostalgia, along with frustration at the lack of improvement under incumbent President Megawati Sukarnoputri, might have helped lead Suharto’s Golkar party to victory in April’s general elections. Golkar won nearly 22% of the vote. Megawati’s PDI-P party, although the next highest vote getter with more than 18%, lost big relative to their 34% showing in 1999.

Indonesia’s general elections are among the world’s most complicated. In April, nearly 450,000 candidates competed for more than 15,000 national and regional offices. It’s not surprising, then, that they didn’t proceed as smoothly as many had hoped or that many reports suggested. Almost 11 million votes — or nearly 9% of all cast — were declared invalid. More than 7,000 election violations were reported, including multiple vote-buying incidents. And in at least one tragic circumstances, recently evicted homeless people in West Jakarta were not allowed to vote, as they no longer lived at the address given during voter registration. One woman with two children stated simply, “Now I can’t vote for anybody that will provide a home and a job for me.”

The five parties that garnered at least 5% in the general elections fielded presidential candidates for the July elections. What were their economic policy proposals? One week prior to the election, Patsy Widakuswara, television producer of Voice of America – Indonesia, said, “The platforms that they have are very vague and formative, more at a philosophical level. They’re not really saying, ‘I want to do A, B, C to alleviate corruption.’ Mostly they’re saying corruption is a bad thing and that we want to get rid of it.” Tiwon noted, “There are a lot of campaign promises but little in the way of specific economic policies, except for Megawati, who can rely on her past record.”

The Jakarta Post questioned the economic promises made on the presidential campaign trail, observing “One of the candidates promised to create almost 13 million jobs within the next five years. Another candidate promised free education up to high school for all students and generous subsidies for small enterprises and farmers. Still another candidate committed to creating millions of jobs through labor-intensive projects such as the building of low-cost public housing. These promises are obviously unrealistic and almost impossible to deliver given the severe restraints within the state budget. One may wonder how the candidates could be so ignorant about the sorry state of public sector finances.”

Since no presidential candidate won more than half the votes in the July elections, the two top vote getters — incumbent President Megawati and her former security minister, now Democratic party candidate Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono — will compete in a run-off election September 20. Does the fate of Indonesia’s poor depend on the outcome? “There is no real reason to expect that any president will be able to improve the economic situation,” asserts Tiwon, for two reasons. One is “the dominance of Golkar in Parliament” and the other the dominance of international financial institutions.

In March 2004, the International Monetary Fund, to which Indonesia owes $10 billion, directed the country to “enhance non-oil tax revenues through broadening the tax base and strengthening tax administration”; to cut down on the current “uncertainty to business” including “arbitrary tax assessments, burdensome customs procedures and inefficiency in the refund systems”; and to build “a clear and competitive framework for labor relations” as the “key to attracting the investment in labor-intensive industries needed to make progress in reducing unemployment.” Tiwon translates these directives as “maintaining a docile labor force, minimizing the high-cost investment environment by streamlining the bureaucracy and, to some extent, acknowledging that there is corruption and that it has to be cleaned up.”

The role of the IMF and related institutions is crucial in Indonesia, and it is “discussed in the media and by civil society groups,” says Tiwon. But there’s “very little real discussion of this by political parties,” and “ordinary Indonesians are not really aware of the role of these international institutions.” Thus one of the major — if not the major — forces shaping Indonesia’s economy isn’t even up for debate, let alone a vote, even though the economy is the voters’ major concern.

Depending on the future course of their economy, it’s not hard to imagine Indonesians becoming increasingly frustrated and more likely to stay home on election day. Why should there be 80% plus voter turnout, as there has been so far this year, if the elections don’t offer a real choice, if the candidates can’t make a difference in people’s lives? It’s a sad and sobering question, especially for a country that emerged from three decades of military dictatorship just six years ago.

DIANE FARSETTA is the coordinator of the Madison chapter of the East Timor Action Network, senior researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy, and community radio volunteer at WORT FM in Madison, WI.

More articles by:

DIANE FARSETTA is the Center for Media and Democracy’s senior researcher. She can be reached at: diane@prwatch.org

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

June 19, 2019
Matthew Stevenson
Requiem for a Lightweight: the Mayor Pete Factor
Kenneth Surin
In China Again
Stephen Cooper
Abolishing the Death Penalty Requires Morality
George Ochenski
The DNC Can’t Be Allowed to Ignore the Climate Crisis
John W. Whitehead
The Omnipresent Surveillance State
William Camacaro - Frederick B. Mills
Guaidó’s Star Fades as His Envoys to Colombia Allegedly Commit Fraud With Humanitarian Funds for Venezuela
Dave Lindorff
What About Venezuela’s Hacked Power Grid?
Howard Lisnoff
Try Not to Look Away
Binoy Kampmark
Matters of Water: Dubious Approvals and the Adani Carmichael Mine
Karl Grossman
The Battle to Stop the Shoreham Nuclear Plant, Revisited
Kani Xulam
Farting in a Turkish Mosque
Dean Baker
New Manufacturing Jobs are Not Union Jobs
Elizabeth Keyes
“I Can’t Believe Alcohol Is Stronger Than Love”
June 18, 2019
John McMurtry
Koch-Oil Big Lies and Ecocide Writ Large in Canada
Robert Fisk
Trump’s Evidence About Iran is “Dodgy” at Best
Yoav Litvin
Catch 2020 – Trump’s Authoritarian Endgame
Thomas Knapp
Opposition Research: It’s Not Trump’s Fault That Politics is a “Dirty” Game
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
U.S. Sanctions: Economic Sabotage that is Deadly, Illegal and Ineffective
Gary Leupp
Marx and Walking Zen
Thomas Hon Wing Polin
Color Revolution In Hong Kong: USA Vs. China
Howard Lisnoff
The False Prophets Cometh
Michael T. Klare
Bolton Wants to Fight Iran, But the Pentagon Has Its Sights on China
Steve Early
The Global Movement Against Gentrification
Dean Baker
The Wall Street Journal Doesn’t Like Rent Control
Tom Engelhardt
If Trump’s the Symptom, Then What’s the Disease?
June 17, 2019
Patrick Cockburn
The Dark Side of Brexit: Britain’s Ethnic Minorities Are Facing More and More Violence
Linn Washington Jr.
Remember the Vincennes? The US’s Long History of Provoking Iran
Geoff Dutton
Where the Wild Things Were: Abbey’s Road Revisited
Nick Licata
Did a Coverup of Who Caused Flint Michigan’s Contaminated Water Continue During Its Investigation? 
Binoy Kampmark
Julian Assange and the Scales of Justice: Exceptions, Extraditions and Politics
John Feffer
Democracy Faces a Global Crisis
Louisa Willcox
Revamping Grizzly Bear Recovery
Stephen Cooper
“Wheel! Of! Fortune!” (A Vegas Story)
Daniel Warner
Let Us Laugh Together, On Principle
Brian Cloughley
Trump Washington Detests the Belt and Road Initiative
Weekend Edition
June 14, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Michael Hudson
Trump’s Trade Threats are Really Cold War 2.0
Bruce E. Levine
Tom Paine, Christianity, and Modern Psychiatry
Jason Hirthler
Mainstream 101: Supporting Imperialism, Suppressing Socialism
T.J. Coles
How Much Do Humans Pollute? A Breakdown of Industrial, Vehicular and Household C02 Emissions
Andrew Levine
Whither The Trump Paradox?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: In the Land of 10,000 Talkers, All With Broken Tongues
Pete Dolack
Look to U.S. Executive Suites, Not Beijing, For Why Production is Moved
Paul Street
It Can’t Happen Here: From Buzz Windrip and Doremus Jessup to Donald Trump and MSNBC
Rob Urie
Capitalism Versus Democracy
Richard Moser
The Climate Counter-Offensive: Secrecy, Deception and Disarming the Green New Deal
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail