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Jakarta Post

Indonesian elections 2019: Are we in the shallow now?

  • Endy Bayuni

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Fri, March 8, 2019   /   09:07 am
Indonesian elections 2019: Are we in the shallow now? A man passes advertising columns standing side by side in front of the Communications and Information Ministry on Jl. Medan Merdeka Barat in Central Jakarta. The posters ask voters to inform themselves on legislative and presidential candidates before the election on April 17. (The Jakarta Post/Dhoni Setiawan)

False claims against President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, that he is a communist, a Chinese descendant, a non-Muslim or a bad Muslim, are making the rounds again in the run up to the April 17 presidential race. But unlike in the 2014 election, when the negative campaigns were waged largely on the internet, this time they are also being conducted door to door.

But Jokowi, or rather his supporters, are not completely blameless for making this year’s general election shallower than the last one, by leaning more toward trivialities than substance.

A case in point was when Prabowo Subianto, the lone challenger to Jokowi, during the second presidential debate struggled over a question about unicorns, Jokowi supporters had a field day over the next 48 hours making viral memes portraying him as a candidate out of touch with millennials.

They highlighted Prabowo’s remarks “Unicorn? You mean those online things?” but ignored the second part of his answer, which legitimately addressed the issue.

On land reform, which came up during the same debate, the focus afterward turned to how many tracts of lands were controlled, not just by Prabowo, but also by some members of Jokowi’s inner circle. Few people viewed land reform as a means of addressing wealth inequality, the reason why Jokowi began the program two years ago to give out land certificates and hence empower the poor.

Lately, the nation has been engaged in an endless debate about the word kafir, which means infidel but is also often used in the Quran to address non-Muslims. This was sparked when Nahdlatul Ulama, the country’s biggest Muslim organization, urged people not to use the word in the current election campaign, because it has the potential to alienate non-Muslims or even divide Muslims.

All this is coming on top of the dozens of legal prosecutions and counter-prosecutions between politicians and their supporters for propagating fake news.

The current massive campaigns for both presidential and legislative elections sadly are almost devoid of real substantive issues addressing real problems that politicians running for office should solve. Instead we are being entertained by issues that hardly have any impact on people’s lives.

Paraphrasing Lady Gaga’s words, “we are in the shallow now”.

Blaming voters, as some are wont to do, by saying that they are giving what voters want to hear and that people are not so interested in the serious stuff, comes across as arrogant and an insult to people’s intelligence. Dumbing down campaign themes assumes that people are stupid.

Blame the internet? The campaign teams and their die hard supporters have turned the internet into a powerful weapon to divert the nation’s attention away from the real problems, engaging them in mundane and trivial issues. This is as bad as those who are weaponizing fake news for political goals.

Free speech, an inseparable part of democratic elections, has been used by politicians and their supporters largely to trade barbs, whether in the debates or on social media. It’s entertainment at best, but is grossly lacking in intellectual content.

It is a sad commentary about Indonesia’s fifth free and democratic elections in the post-Soeharto era that democracy is increasingly being reduced to nothing more than a political circus.

Fortunately, Indonesia is in good company. Many other older democracies are suffering from the same as populism, aided by the internet, takes hold and rules our politics. Some of these populist democracies ended up with leaders that are clearly wrong. Pray that they make good on their error in the next election.

One thing politicians should never do is underestimate voters. They are much smarter than most politicians take them for.

There is a growing number of voters who have vowed to stay away from the polling stations on April 17, because they don’t like what they see in the election campaigns.

Since voting is not compulsory, and April 17 is a national holiday which will be followed by another national holiday to celebrate Good Friday on April 19, those who have been turned off by the tone of the current election campaigns may decide to leave town. Watch the voter turnout for it says a lot about what people think about the current election.

It may be too late to salvage the 2019 election to turn it into a more meaningful practice of our democratic process of electing our leader. But there are valuable lessons learned. At least we know that the political system, its institutions and the attitude of most of our politicians, all need serious fixing.

This is something we can take away today as we look forward to 2024, and staying with Lady Gaga, hopefully we can then sing “We’re far from the shallow now”.