Q&A with Elisabeth Kramer, University of Sydney PhD Student

Posted on 19 May, 2014

Elisabeth Kramer is a PhD student at the University of Sydney and a Teaching Fellow with the Department of Indonesian Studies. She is researching anti-corruption symbolism and rhetoric in Indonesia’s legislative election campaigns. She was in Indonesia in the lead up to the Legislative elections and we asked her a few questions about what she observed.

Why were you in Indonesia for the elections? 

My PhD research is on election campaigning and how discourses of anti-corruption are used by emerging parties at different scales, namely at the national and local levels. I’d already been in Indonesia for just over a year and a half and decided to come back for the six weeks prior to the election to see how all the planning done by parties and candidates I’d met in the past played out during the actual campaign period.

Since you were in Indonesia in the lead-up to the elections, what was the most fascinating thing you observed? 
The campaign rallies are always fascinating. The showy-ness of what parties do and how they try to appeal to voters is very interesting. Rallies with marching bands, sexy dangdut singers dancing, horses (in the case of Prabowo!). You really have to wonder whether they get their money’s worth with those events.

On a more serious note, one thing that always sticks in my mind is the attitude that different candidates have towards their constituents. I would often find it jarring to hear an upper-middle class politician who lives mostly in Jakarta tell you (with great authority) what people in the villages think, and what they need. Or disparaging comments about their understandings of politics and their ability to be swayed by money. Fascinating in a bad way, I suppose, because the lack of political education is a reality, but many candidates don’t see it as their role to enlighten people about the democratic system, just to convince the to vote for them. And yet they complain about it too.

Did you come across any ‘money-politics’? 
Money politics is a tricky term to define, but yes I saw cash exchanging hands. I also heard candidates pledge donations to mosques, churches, village funds and promise to fix roads and piping. If you broadly define money-politics as receiving goods or services in return for votes then this counts. But most candidates I spoke to don’t seem to define this as money politics but use other terms like ‘transport money’ or, when talking about donations, they talk about it as an act of charity. It’s a very blurry world.
There is an estimated 21 million first time voters in this years election, did you notice a strong youth presence in the lead up to the elections and on voting day? 
The majority of turnout at most rallies seem to be young people, but that could just be because they have nothing better to do. In terms of youth presence, I heard parties talk about tapping into the ‘youth vote’ but it wasn’t something I saw myself.
What were some of the key concerns of the Indonesian people in selecting who they would vote for? 
I think many voters were very cynical about these elections, but I also think it’s very difficult to generalise about what the key concerns were. Voters could chose a candidate because a family connection, it being someone they know or have met. Every party tried to appeal widely; corruption was a key issue, andalso things like food security and poverty alleviation were mentioned. I think what voters were essentially looking for was a change, a new direction from the stagnation that the later years of SBY’s rule seemed to bring. And perhaps one of the reasons that no one party gained a significant majority was because none of them really managed to capture the public’s imagination in this regard.
No political party was able to get the 25% needed to put forward a Presidential candidate, and now must form collations before the Presidential elections in July. How strategic will political parties have to be when forming these coalitions? 
Parties will have to be strategic but also need to make sure they don’t alienate their support base by forming the wrong coalition. It’s fair to say that despite PDIP’s less-than-expected result, Jokowi is still the favourite for the presidency. This means that many parties will be vying to pair with PDIP. Nasdem has already thrown their hat in the ring and this may be enough to get a coalition of 25%, but it may be tight. But other parties such as Golkar and Gerindra would seriously undermine their own credibility if they paired with PDIP  and nominated Jokowi because they have been pushing their respective presidential candidates for a long time now. So this is a time for parties to be very strategic about their choice of partners.
There are reports of election violations in Aceh, such as ‘money politics’ and intimidation of voters, do you think this characteristic of Indonesia’s young democracy?
I think it happens and many would generalise and say that it is characteristic but by the same token the vote count and polling booths I was at in Jakarta didn’t display much of this behaviour. The extent of such behaviour probably depends where you are and who the candidates are. It would also depend on your definition of money politics.
Social Media and the Internet have been important tools in these elections, both for the Indonesian people, candidates and political parties. They have also been attributed to Gerindra’s success in the legislative elections. Do you think Presidential candidates will have to increase their presence online and usage of social media, in the lead up to the elections in July?
I think social media is a very important tool and, being free, a great resource for presidential candidates that won’t blow out their budgets like television, billboards and newspaper advertising. I’m sure that presidential candidates will be using social media relentlessly in the lead up to July. I think, though, it’s importance shouldn’t be overstated. We also have to remember that not everyone is tapped into social media. Outside of the cities internet exists and you can connect on a smartphone, but not everyone has the technology or the knowledge of how to do this.
What do you think will be the biggest challenge for the incoming President? 
Negotiating the competing interests in parliament, selecting a cabinet that balances these interests while also choosing skilled and knowledgeable ministers who really understand their portfolios, and rebuilding public trust in the government, including addressing issues like corruption. Sorry, that’s more than one!