It’s the free T-shirts they’re after

What’s attracting sceptical Indonesians to election rallies?

It began with a bang.

Just six days ago, party faithful thronged the streets of Indonesia in carnival mood to mark the start of the country’s election campaigning.

That initial enthusiasm, however, is appearing to fade. Red, yellow and green banners of 24 parties contesting the parliamentary poll next month are still hoisted on flagpoles, traffic lights and trees.

But where are the crowds?

Across the sprawling archipelago, from Java to Sumatra to Sulawesi, people are turning up in droves – not to listen to speeches but to collect free T-shirts and other memorabilia being handed out by big guns like the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and Golkar to win votes.

Otherwise, the fields are deserted, with a public increasingly sceptical of politicians’ rhetoric and empty pledges.

Security guard Suharto, 33, reflects the sentiments of many of the country’s wong cilik, or poor. Standing in a queue with hundreds of others in West Jakarta to collect PDI-P shirts embellished with the logo of a bull with a white muzzle, he says:

‘It’s free! I am hoping to join another rally to get another one for my girlfriend. But it does not mean we support PDI-P. We don’t trust any of the parties.

‘They made a lot of promises in 1999. But not much has changed. The people in power have grown richer and the people have become poorer. So, what’s wrong collecting a few more T-shirts?’

Clearly, the impact of such thinking is being felt across the board, especially among the major parties.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri kicked off her re-election campaign kissing babies and chanting party slogans in the tourist resort of Bali.

More than 5,000 PDI-P supporters formed a sea of red, the party colour, at a field in the town of Gianyar in Bali, one of her strongholds.

But the turnout, according to party members, was much lower compared to her campaign there five years ago.

In Jambi, in West Sumatra, barely 1,000 turned up over the weekend for the rally of PDI-P secretary-general Soejipto.

The other juggernaut, Golkar, is also getting a cool reception to sometimes long speeches of anti-corruption and the ABCs of reformasi.

Political lethargy explains the fraying crowds. But there are other reasons. For the newer and smaller parties, they have no money to launch a sustained 22-day campaign.

Take, for example, the Social Democratic Labour Party (PBSD). Holding its indoor campaign in the capital, it managed to attract only a few teenagers who were outnumbered by 75 policemen guarding the event.

The English-language daily Jakarta Post quoted a PBSD organiser as saying that it could not draw people to attend its rally because it did not have enough funds to produce T-shirts, food and entertainment. It only had Rp 20 million (S$3,950) in its war chest.

The PNI Marhaenisme, chaired by Ms Megawati’s younger sister Sukmawati Sukarnoputri, also fared poorly in holding a public dialogue, although the General Election Commission (KPU) had provided funds for the party to hire out a venue. It managed to campaign in only five Jakarta districts, out of a total 44.

Outside the capital, the situation was no different. In Medan in North Sumatra, eight parties called off campaign plans because of poor financing.

In Surabaya, East Java, there were no parades on the streets. Parties campaigning there cancelled their public dialogues after failing to attract an audience.

Some argue that the KPU’s guidelines restricting campaigning to indoor dialogue sessions for the first two weeks – which some parties like PDI-P and Golkar have chosen to ignore – could explain the absence of crowds.

But clearly, the political euphoria that surrounded the elections in 1999 seems glaringly absent in Indonesia today. And there is another six months of campaigning until a new president is elected.

For some, the flag-waving, horn-tooting and drum-banging will still continue, but will it be in the name of democracy or for that free T-shirt?

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