Political fatigue thinning out crowds

INDONESIAN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION 2004

People attend rallies only to collect free gifts as presidential race faces prospect of dragging on for another four months.

NEWS ANALYSIS

Where are the crowds?

Campaigning for Indonesia’s first presidential polls began two weeks ago with a lot of bluster.

The banners of the five candidates and their running mates are still hoisted on flagpoles and trees to remind everyone this is an election year.

But the initial enthusiasm is appearing to fade against a backdrop of political fatigue as Indonesians face the prospect of seeing the race drag on for another four months.

The election has turned out to be a nearly year-long affair, starting off with a general election in April and two rounds of presidential elections in the offing.

Across the distended archipelago, from Java to Sumatra to Sulawesi, people are still turning up – not to listen to speeches, but to collect free T-shirts, food handouts and other memorabilia.

Otherwise, the rallies are not attracting people, with the public increasingly tired and sceptical of the rhetoric and empty pledges of politicians.

The contenders are still trying to inject a carnival-like mood to their rallies.

On Sunday, prominent artistes and starlets such as Sarah Azhari and Silvana Herman tried to liven up a rally of retired general Wiranto.

But even their presence did little to attract the crowds. The 15,000 who attended were hardly enough to fill the 100,000-seat Bung Karno Stadium in the capital.

All the presidential front runners have suffered a similar fate.

Mr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono found himself with just a handful of supporters at a rally in Jakarta last week despite the boast of being the most popular candidate.

And President Megawati Sukarnoputri has realised that her brand name is no guarantee of a huge turnout.

Even in traditional strongholds, she was struggling to draw crowds.

Recently in Tabanan, Bali, just 3,000 to 4,000 people turned up – despite the initial promise of 10,000 – to listen to the incumbent. Most of them were children who were too young to vote.

Taxi driver Suyanto, 33, reflecting the sentiments of the wong cilik, or little people, said: ‘Every day, we see these candidates making promises. They promise better education and welfare. They can even promise us the moon.

‘But that is what our presidents have been doing for the last six years. They have not delivered. So, can you blame us for not being interested?’

Clearly, the political euphoria that surrounded the month-long election campaign in 1999 seems to be glaringly absent in Indonesia today.

There are other reasons.

Some argue that a decision by the General Elections Commission (KPU) to restrict campaigning to five geographical zones has taken the buzz out of the contest as candidates must take turns to campaign in these zones.

That ensures no clashes of supporters, but also takes some of the excitement out of the hustings.

A more pressing consideration is money – or the lack of it. After the millions spent on the April parliamentary polls, politicians need a fresh injection of capital to see through possibly two rounds in the presidential race.

More than half the money has been spent on costly TV commercials, leaving little for campaign rallies.

Well-placed sources reveal that money is also slushing about to sway voters.

Internal party politics could also be a reason for the declining numbers. In some cases, parties backing a particular candidate might not be entirely behind the individual.

Intra-party factionalism has meant, for example, that Golkar is less than united in its support for Mr Wiranto.

Party branches, lukewarm in their backing for him, have been slow in mobilising supporters to turn up at rallies.

Will a lacklustre campaign have any bearing on voter turnout on July 5?

According to the KPU, about 23.5 million, or almost 16 per cent of the registered voters, did not vote in the general
election.

Observers believe the figure could remain the same or move up a few percentage points.

Interestingly, for the first time ever, thousands are threatening to boycott the election, with confidence in the political elite dropping.

Farmers in the capital demonstrated recently and declared that they would not cast their votes unless they were given ownership of the land that they work on.

Neighbourhood communities are protesting against kampung demolitions, and migrant workers and their families are demanding better protection.

The campaign has done little so far to win over these demonstrators and a disinterested public.

Many might have already made up their minds on who they want as president. But even the undecided do not see benefits in attending rallies – other than to get that free T-shirt, of course.

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