DUNCAN GRAHAM When sinking looms, jump.

Imagine if almost six per cent of the Coalition reckoned they’d lose their seats at the next election so switch to Labor. 

Chances are they wouldn’t be piped aboard, as ship jumpers are not favoured in Australian politics, distrusted by the party they betrayed and the one where they seek to stowaway.  

 Not so in Indonesia where more than 30 in the 560-member House of Representatives (DPR) have sniffed the wind and reckon they’d rather jettison principles than lose prestige. That’s according to Jakarta think-tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Parties need at least four percent of the national vote to stay afloat in the DPR so members of small shows, often faith-based, have been checking lockers for lifejackets.

Why so keen to hang-in? Politicians everywhere say they’re motivated by wanting to ‘serve the community’. The truer phrase in Indonesia would be ‘take from the community.’ Transparency International claims the law makers work in the Republic’s most corrupt public institution.

In the last 15 years the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) has secured convictions against almost 550 public servants and politicians. It remains the most trusted public authority so subject to attacks by its victims for being ’too powerful’. 

Seventeen is a mystic number in Indonesian culture; 17 August 1945 was the date the nation declared its independence from the colonial Dutch, so it was appropriate that the first of five national TV debates ahead of the 17 April national vote was held on 17 January.

This pitted President Joko Widodo, 57, and his running mate hardline Islamic cleric Ma’ruf Amin, 75, against Prabowo Subianto, 67, and US-educated businessman Sandiaga Uno, 49.

Widodo, who has held power for the past five years, heads a coalition of seven parties, led by the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP). Together they hold 386 seats. Election of the President is by direct popular vote and doesn’t depend on numbers in the DPR.

With three months before the ballot, the incumbent is leading most opinion polls.   But in this vast and complex nation straddling the Equator, one spark from an inflammatory issue (price of basic commodities, overseas ‘interference’ or religious slur) could start a bushfire turning predictions to ash.

Opposition is the Red and White Coalition (named after the bicolour national flag), with 113 seats. It’s just two parties led by Gerindra started by Subianto as a vehicle for his bid to remain relevant.

He’s a yesteryear’s warrior hoping to remove Widodo in a contest that deserves close attention, particularly by Australians concerned our foreign policy should be more Jakarta and less Washington

Billed as big, a splendid example of doing politics properly in the world’s third largest democracy, the debate disappointed largely because it wasn’t. That’s because the General Election Commission (KPU) determined the issues – law, human rights, terrorism and conflict – and gave questions in advance.

Predictably answers were memorised ensuring speakers drove past each other staring ahead; they seldom crossed the median strip threatening a collision of policies which might spark chatter.

Post-event interviews of viewers found many rated the show boring, failing to offer new initiatives to handle old problems. Some said they dozed off.

Subianto revealed his sclerotic thinking by continually urging ‘strong’ boundaries, laws and responses to crises, wrapping himself in knots (and nots) when Widodo asked about the endorsement of six candidates who’d already been convicted of corruption.

Suggesting it’s up to the electorate to reject them, wasn’t the best response from a man with the power to sift applicants.

For Western viewers Uno appeared the most professional, attacking Widodo on his record and asking why voters should continue trusting his government. This should have given the President the chance to launch a job-done list. He blew it.

The challenger’s backers remind voters their hero is properly titled Lieutenant General (retired). They think electors still hanker for a return to the tough-guy politics which kept Subianto’s former father-in-law Soeharto in power for 32 years last century.

Indonesia’s median age is 30 (Australia’s is 37); the world’s most populous Muslim nation (88 per cent of 260 million), is largely young. Around 30 per cent were born since Soeharto quit in 1998 after student riots against his economic and conservative social policies, so talk of the Good-ol’-Days means nothing unless it’s a game or smartphone app.

Although a grandfather, calm low-key Widodo looks young, cool and modern, unlike the arrogant Subianto, often astride a horse and wearing dark glasses. His style is fascist aloof.

Subianto told viewers that raising public officials’ salaries would hasten the defeat of corruption. However most convicted of bribery were holding top jobs with good pay when arrested.

Former Golkar Party leader Setya Novanto, once a super-rich wheeler, is now serving a 15-year term involving a AUD $240 million electronic ID card fraud. The lower rungs tend to have higher morals.

Widodo’s offsider Amin is a former head of the world’s largest Sunni Islamic organisation Nahdlatul Ulama claiming 40 million members. He’s more used to addressing compliant congregations so put in a poor performance, even failing to find anything to say when offered time to summarise.

Why bother to persuade when you can order? Indonesia’s Human Rights watch has reminded voters that Amin has ‘helped draft and been a vocal supporter of fatwas (religious edicts),

‘Those fatwas, although not legally binding, have been used to legitimise increasingly hateful rhetoric against LGBT people and in some cases, fuelled deadly violence by militant Islamists against religious minorities.’

Sadly these issues stir few voters; the candidates know this well so just give tick-a-box replies on HR and move on to other concerns – food security, energy and natural resources. All on the agenda for debate two next month. On the 17th, of course.

Australian journalist Duncan Graham lives in East Java.

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