Villagers Ask When Will Democracy Pay

By Alvin Darlanika Soedarjo
Agence France-Presse

SUKABUMI, West Java ~ Puffing on a clove cigarette and balancing a bundle of firewood on his head, 79-year-old farmer Oji is one of millions of poor Indonesians who question the value of democracy.

Nothing much has changed in his village in Sukabumi regency, just a couple of hours’ drive south of Jakarta, since the Suharto dictatorship fell in 1998 and the “Reformasi” era of democratic reform began.

Now, as 171 million eligible voters ponder who to back in local, provincial and general elections on Thursday, Oji looks at all the party posters adorning his village and asks what all the fuss is about.

“I can’t feel the impact of democracy here. It’s just the same with or without it,” said the Muslim, who earns 50 US cents a day.

“It would be good if the elected leaders improved our living conditions after the election. But if not, that’s fine with me.”

Oji said he would seek divine guidance when the time came to cast his ballot, a task he sees as a duty rather than a celebration of democracy.

“All Indonesian citizens have to vote. I will pray and ask for God’s advice before I vote,” he said.

Sukabumi regency – known since the Dutch colonial times for its cool climate, fertile soil and vast expanses of verdant rice fields – has about 1.5 million voters spread across 367 villages.

Many millions of voters live in far more remote and impoverished villages across the vast Indonesian archipelago, which stretches from Papua in the east to Aceh on the western tip of Sumatra.

This year’s vote is only the third general election in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority country, since Suharto decided to quit amid mass demonstrations and a collapsing economy after 32 years in power.

Tens of thousands of candidates from 44 parties are running for office, and poll after poll is showing that as many as 40 percent of voters are undecided or likely to vote incorrectly.

“There are so many parties to choose from. It’s confusing. Many people are going to vote carelessly,” Sukabumi shop owner Anjasastika said as he waited for customers to buy bottled water or snacks.

“I liked it better when there were only three parties in the country,” the 30-year-old said, referring to the tightly controlled system of party politics under Suharto’s “New Order” regime.

Aiteti, a 37-year-old housewife, said 10 years of democracy had failed to improve her family’s standard of living even as the elite had made fortunes from the booming economy.

“It’s the same here. Actually it’s getting worse. It’s harder for my husband to find a job,” she said.

Analysts said local issues of the kind likely to make a direct difference to the lives of people like Aiteti were not surfacing in the election campaigns.

Parties are promoting celebrity candidates and their leaders ahead of presidential polls in July, and there is an almost total absence of detailed policy debate.

“The concerns of particular voters about clean water or infrastructure or education at the local level are not being addressed,” Indonesian Institute of Sciences deputy chairwoman Dewi Fortuna Anwar said.

“If you look at (President Susilo Bambang) Yudhoyono for example, who are his legislative candidates? We don’t know. Only a few celebrity candidates are running campaigns.

“I think this is something that is lamentable in the Indonesian democratic process.”

For fish trader Ayim, 40, improvement would mean paving the dirt paths that lead to his home and installing a waste treatment system to replace the open toilets common throughout his village.

“I’m a poor man. Just look at the condition of my house,” he said, pointing at a rickety bamboo hut.

“I don’t understand politics… (but) I will vote,” he added.

Cecep Qusyairi, 42, a teacher at an Islamic school, said democracy had enabled many poor children to get an education thanks to a government subsidy program, but teachers’ pay was still “meager.”

Local legislative candidate Suwarna Somawinata, from the Golkar party that dominated life under Suharto and remains one of the biggest parties in the country, encouraged poor voters to exercise their voting rights.

“About 60 percent of the people here are poor. They think about what to eat first; then vote later,” he said.

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