Pushing the envelope: Money politics mars Indonesian poll
Shanti Ramchand learned quickly what was expected when she began campaigning in Jakarta for Indonesia’s national parliament distribute envelopes of cash at a small campaign event, and gift a motorcycle or an airconditioning unit to the community leader.
Ramchand, an aspiring politician from the National Democrat Party, part of President Joko Widodo’s coalition, is trying a novel approach to getting elected. She is not only eschewing the cash and gifts that are traditionally given out on the campaign trail, but making it the centerpiece of her pitch to voters.
Indonesia — the world’s third-largest democracy — has some of the worst money politics in Southeast Asia, according to researchers. Handouts of cash and gifts, anti-graft advocates and politicians say, lead to rampant corruption in its national legislature as successful candidates recoup their election expenses, and more, once elected.
Envelopes, usually stuffed with cash ranging from 20,000 to 100,000 rupiah ($1.42 to $7.08), are commonly doled out to voters. These are small amounts, but the overall cost can be huge over a six month campaign.
Earlier this month, Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) seized six storage chests in a concealed basement owned by Bowo Sidik Pangarso, a parliamentarian seeking re-election from the Golkar Party, another party in Widodo’s ruling coalition. The chests contained 400,000 envelopes each believed to contain 20,000 rupiah — a total of 8 billion rupiah or over $566,000.
Bowo, who has been detained but not formally charged, told reporters last week after leaving an interview with the anti-corruption body that the envelopes were for the national parliament election, not the presidential election, both due on April 17.
While illegal, politicians and analysts say it is relatively rare to see prosecutions for election-time bribery.
Two politicians from the National Mandate Party, part of the opposition coalition headed by former general Prabowo Subianto, were sentenced to three months in prison in December for distributing coupons for the Umrah pilgrimage to Makkah to voters. They will not be disqualified from running for office again.
In 2017, the then speaker of the national parliament Setya Novanto was arrested for orchestrating a scheme to plunder $173 million from a government contract for a national electronic identity card.
The KPK alleged most of the money was to be funneled to up to 60 lawmakers. Novanto was sentenced to 15 years in prison, underscoring why Indonesia’s national parliament rates as among the most corrupt institutions in the country in surveys.
In a south Jakarta neighborhood, Ramchand is working the courtyard crowd, engaging in some questions and answers as she tries to convince constituents to vote for her.
“We don’t choose the envelope, right?,” she says, receiving scattered approval from the crowd of about 40 congregating in a shady courtyard to ward off the mid-afternoon sun.
“That’s right. Check the background of the candidate. Ask them about their programs. Your voice can’t be bought.”