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The year of testing democracy

By Duncan Graham - posted Friday, 14 March 2014

Next month (April) the world's third largest democracy and our nearest Asian neighbour goes to the polls. Duncan Graham reports from Malang, East Java:

It doesn't look right.

There's just 20 metres of posters when the banners and billboards previously stretched almost to the Bromo-Semeru Massif backdrop. They flutter along a small bridge over a trash-choked drain, and can be seen only from one lane of the four-way intersection.


Other travellers might be unaware elections in the world's third largest democracy are just around the corner, though they'd be bumped up to date once they turned on TV.

Here the ads are more overpowering, though only three of the 19 free-to-air stations in my area are focussing seriously on the contest. Two of the three are owned by contenders.

In previous elections the streetscape was curtained and spanned by gaudy banners, the roads blocked by paid paramilitary-style motorcycle gangs roaring support for candidates.

This time local authorities are curbing excesses, though things may change when the campaign gets underway for the presidential election on 9 July. That's the big one – the parliamentary seats are a sideshow.

Outsiders often assume religion drives Indonesian politics and society. Faith is a powerful force, but it runs far behind nationalism. Proof is in the ballot box.

The principal Islamic movement Partai Keadilan Sejahtera scored under eight per cent at the 2009 election. The name translates as justice and prosperity, but its elected members have since proved to be as sleazy and graft-ridden as the rest in a country ranked 114 on Transparency International's corruption perception index. (Australia is in ninth place, NZ at the top.)


Politicians using Islamic props like the Ka'aba and headscarf just bump along the bottom when compared to those draped in the secular red and white national flag.

After proclaiming independence in 1945 Indonesians led by first president Soekarno fought a brutal four-year guerrilla war against the stubborn colonial Dutch. The revolutionaries' success still stiffens spines.

Those who knew Soekarno (he was deposed in 1965, the 'year of living dangerously') recall a charismatic leader mesmerising millions with soaring oratory, but a flawed economist, toppled by the army that hated his dalliance with communism.

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About the Author

Duncan Graham is a Perth journalist who now lives in Indonesia in winter and New Zealand in summer. He is the author of The People Next Door (University of Western Australia Press) and Doing Business Next Door (Wordstars). He blogs atIndonesia Now.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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