Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Indonesian election: The grass-roots campaign

Indonesian election: The grass-roots campaign
Published 27 Jun 2014 

With two weeks to go until Indonesia chooses its next president, mainstream and online media are flooded with political messages. Mainstream media has given up any pretense of nonpartisanship, while social media has become a battleground of slogans and symbols. But even for those who choose to switch off media completely, the barrage of political messages is unavoidable. Jostling for attention in the public space are metres and metres of spanduk, the colourful banners strung up from trees, electricity poles, fences and doorways from one side of the densely populated archipelago to the other.

In Jakarta, banners bearing the faces of presidential contenders Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo and Prabowo Subianto, as well as their respective vice presidential candidates Jusuf Kalla and Hatta Rajasa, are filling up intersections, main roads and alleyways. Some banners are produced by the parties backing the candidates, while others are made by supporting associations, institutions or volunteer groups that have joined the campaign.

Last week I took a trip around several neighbourhoods of different income levels in South Jakarta to see how the candidates are presenting themselves, or being presented by their supporters, in the public space. I found that many neighbourhoods were dominated by banners supporting one side or the other, suggesting that communities were either going to, or were expected to, vote as a bloc.

In my small sample, I found that income level was not a determining factor for a neighbourhood's support for either candidate. If anything, community support was more closely linked to existing organisations and institutions. Support for Prabowo was seen from both lower-income and elite groups, while Jokowi was supported by his political party and volunteer groups across the spectrum. This confirms suggestions that middle-class voters, with fewer affiliations to such groups, are the ones to win over in the upcoming election. [fold]

For example, one crowded neighbourhood in North Gandaria was filled with banners, stickers and flags supporting Prabowo. At the community watch post, a banner showed that the Prabowo-Hatta pair was supported in the area by the Betawi Brotherhood Communication Forum (Forkabi), a mass organisation that claims to provide community services, but which has also been accused of involvement in gang violence. The advertising extended into the nearby goldfish market, where garbage collectors live around the perimeter.

In an even more crowded area a few neighbourhoods over in Bangka, Jokowi-Kalla posters dominated the streets, and community watch posts were covered in the red-and-black bull of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the party supporting Jokowi's bid for president. There, the pair were backed by the owners of motorcycle repair shelters and tiny stalls selling sweets and cigarettes.

At an intersection in the wealthy area of Panglima Polim, where residences are rapidly being converted to hipster middle-class cafes, banners supporting Jokowi and Prabowo were hung one above the other (see photo above), something less commonly seen in lower income neighbourhoods. Jokowi and Hatta, dressed in their signature casual shirts, promise to push 'towards a great Indonesia' while Prabowo and Hatta, wearing traditional peci caps as a reference to both Islamic piety and President Sukarno's nationalist movement, promise to 'save Indonesia'. Both use the red-and-white Indonesian flag as a backdrop.

The slogans and imagery reinforce the themes of the two campaigns: Jokowi and Kalla emphasising solidarity with the people (at least through their attire), while Prabowo and Hatta promise to 'save' the people and raise Indonesia's dominance on the world stage, once again claiming the title of 'Asian tiger' (some banners in the area are even decorated with roaring tigers). Jokowi and Kalla are described on their banners as 'honest, of the people and simple', while Prabowo and Hatta are described as 'smart, firm and capable'.

Meanwhile, banners made by volunteer groups and supporting organisations put their own spin on reasons to choose one candidate over another.

The above banner, made by Generasi Muda FKPPI, an association of families of military and police veterans, supports Prabowo's bid with the slogan 'One Commando for All'. It suggests that Prabowo maintains military support, despite being dismissed from service over allegations regarding his role in the kidnapping and disappearance of student activists in 1998. His former superior, the retired General Wiranto, whose Hanura party is part of the coalition supporting Jokowi's bid, last week publicly confirmed that the abductions were the reason for Prabowo's dismissal. Prabowo earlier responded to a question about the incident in a televised debate by saying that he was only following orders.

Aside from his connections to Wiranto, Jokowi has also found support in less powerful circles. At the edge of a leafy neighbourhood and a busy overpass, some motorcycle taxi drivers in Brawijaya have turned a sign for their transport service into a campaign poster, supported by the Red-White People's Volunteers (Relawan RMP), a pro-Jokowi group.

Why Jokowi? 'Because Jokowi is a man of the people!' they said, echoing the slogans seen on banners in the area. After having their photograph taken, holding up two fingers to indicate Jokowi's ballot number, the motorcycle drivers rushed to present me with a T-shirt, stickers and pins from the nearby campaign centre.

Across the overpass in the neighbourhood of Mampang Prapatan, where the streets are so narrow they can only accommodate one motorcycle at a time, a shopkeeper just as enthusiastically endorsed Prabowo. His shop was draped with posters and his family, who were sitting in front of it, said they would all be voting for Prabowo. Why? The reply again came in the form of slogans: 'Prabowo tegas, kerja keras!' (Prabowo is firm, works hard).

My own motorcyclist guide, after seeing so many banners, said he was confused about who he would vote for on 9 July. It can't help having banners turning up around Jakarta like the one below: vote for Prabowo, it suggests, and Jokowi will remain governor of Jakarta. The banner has already been reported to the Elections Monitoring Agency (Bawaslu) for being displayed on public property such as the Jakarta People's Representative Council (DPRD) building. Over the weekend, I saw it displayed on a billboard-sized LED screen on the side of the popular Plaza Senayan shopping centre.

It's a powerful message for Jakartans who placed their hope in Jokowi as governor to help the city overcome chronic problems of traffic, flooding and inequality.

Perhaps this is the kind of message that is turning the loyalties of swing voters and the middle class, who voted for Jokowi in the Jakarta election. Without connections to community organisations, institutions or political parties, these voters are left to make decisions based on the information available to them, whether via the warped messages of the media, the zealous debate online, or the collage of competing interests on every street corner.

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