Apathy and corruption in the archipelago

In many university campuses parties organize vote drives or "democracy parties" to encourage students to vote. This Rock the Vote party distributed t-shirt in representative party colors for those who were registered. (Anna DeVries/Indonesiaful)

On many university campuses parties organize vote drives or “democracy parties” to encourage students to vote. This party distributed Rock The Vote t-shirts in representative party colors for those who were registered. (Anna DeVries/Indonesiaful)

As an American, I’m used to the endless campaign cycle. In the months and years before a presidential election, we are inundated with advertisements and news about candidates. It’s difficult to turn on the TV or listen to the radio without the election being mentioned. Elections often breed awkward family functions, rambunctious debates with friends, and the desire to hide in a cave until all the votes are counted.

Due to this frenetic culture in the U.S., I’m a bit confused by Indonesia. The presidential election is just a few months away, in July, and parliamentary elections are even sooner, on this Wednesday, April 9. However, that sense of election fervor is almost wholly absent in Parung. People rarely discuss the election, and when it is mentioned, political talk tends to be quickly brushed off in favor of other topics. Many Indonesians not only appear disinterested in elections and politics, but also openly loathe them. If a political ad plays on the TV, my friends usually respond with an annoyed eye roll or yell “Bohong!” (lie!) at the TV.

The one event that I expected to induce fiery political passion resulted in little more than a civic puff of smoke. After months and months of speculation, Megawati, the daughter of Indonesia’s beloved first President Sukarno and the leader of Indonesia’s opposition party PDI-P, named Jokowi Widodo as the party’s presidential candidate. Huge support surrounds Jokowi, who is the Governor of Jakarta. He is framed as the people’s politician and is refreshingly divorced from political family dynasties and corruption claims. Yet, when the announcement came on March 14 people generally didn’t express joy, relief, or excitement. Upon asking one teacher about the announcement, he responded, “Yes, I’m happy, I guess. But I’m scared he will just be a doll for Megawati.”

About 67 million new voters will participate in this year’s election. So what’s going on here? Shouldn’t people be excited? Why is there so much apathy?

I think my students answer these questions best. Earlier this semester, I taught my students about Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. For their homework, I asked them to answer the question, “What is your dream for Indonesia?” The vast majority of answers sounded something like this:

“…It would be perfect if people would stop corrupting for their own greed and start to realize the damage it causes to their own country. “

My dream for Indonesia is the corruptor to realize that they making the people of Indonesia suffer from starvation….”

I dream Indonesia free of corruption, no longer ruled by weak leaders, the laws being enforced and applied to any citizens without being bought by money.”

“…We must destroy corruption because it make poor people. “

I dream that one day Indonesia is peace. Peace that can make Indonesia feel free from the suffer like corruption.”

Clearly, corruption is at the forefront of Indonesians’ minds. I hear about corruption on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. Everyone is frustrated by corruption, which they see as endemic and stifling to progress. It festers at every level of government including the civil service, police, judiciary, and parliament. Traffic stops or driver’s license renewals can be harrowing affairs here. Indonesians fearfully schlep to government offices prepared with extra cash and heaps of patience.

Transparency International, arguably the seminal resource on world corruption,  rated Indonesia at 114 out of 177 countries surveyed in 2013 on its Corruption Perceptions Index (the lower the ranking, the more corrupt the country). Its neighbors on the index include Mexico and Egypt. In another survey by Transparency International, 36% of respondents reported that they, or someone in their family, had paid a bribe in the last 12 months. According to one Gallop Poll, 91% of Indonesians see corruption as widespread in government and 88% believe the same for business. One of the teachers at my school summarized the problem simply for me, “In Indonesia, good people go to the bottom and bad people go to the top. If a person wants to help the people, then they won’t have money or power.” In this environment, the disinterest and cynicism I’ve witnessed are understandable.

This is not to say that there aren’t those in the government trying to address the problem. At the center of anti-corruption efforts is the Corruption Eradication Commission, referred to as the KPK. Since 2002, the popular and controversial commission has investigated and convicted a number of politicians and businessmen. While the commission is far too small to investigate the lion’s share of cases, the hope is that by exposing high profile leaders, the commission will deter corruption at lower levels of governance.

Throughout this past year the KPK has built an infamous case in the province of Banten, just west of Jakarta. In October, the commission imprisoned former Constitutional Court Chief Justice Akil Mochtar for accepting bribes in an election dispute. The KPK has also detained Banten’s Governor, Ratu Atut Chosiyah, on related charges of bribery and extortion. Almost a dozen of Ratu Atut’s family members hold office in Banten. The family has purportedly stolen billions of rupiah in public funds while residing over some of the most impoverished communities in Indonesia. Her brother, nicknamed Wawan, is currently facing trial in relation to election-rigging activities and medical equipment procurement graft. Wawan is accused of funneling about Rp 8.5 billion to Akil Mochtar for two elections, including the 2011 governor’s race. The Banten affair has served to further disgust and disillusion with the government.

Considering this cloud of corruption, the lackluster election atmosphere makes sense. My friends, students, and co-workers have little faith in their elected officials. Rather than boiling over in anger due to corruption allegations, they largely prefer to ignore politics and carry on with their lives. That said, almost all of them plan to go to the polls on April 9. Who will they vote for? Most still have no idea.

About the author: Elizabeth Kennedy is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Parung, West Java. She graduated from Occidental College in 2012 with a degree in Diplomacy and World Affairs. When Elizabeth is not sitting in traffic or running from a rainstorm, she enjoys dancing with her students and eating rujak.

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