Indonesia election: Old rivals, new battleground

Youths at a rally in Medan with their heads shaved to form the letters "ARB", short for Aburizal Bakrie, and "President" to show their support for the Golkar chief's bid for the presidency.

MEDAN, Indonesia - Five years ago, cobbler Feizal Lutfi voted for Golkar, but now he says he is switching to its longtime rival, Indonesian Democratic Party - Struggle (PDI-P).

The reason: PDI-P's presidential candidate Joko Widodo, better known as Jokowi.

"He cares about the common man's struggle. Unlike previous leaders, he works hard and hits the ground tirelessly," said the 53-year-old resident of Medan, Sumatra, known for its many loyal Golkar voters.

Mr Feizal's switch of political allegiance is being played out on a wider canvas. Sumatra, with 40 million voters, accounts for 120 of the 560 seats in the national parliament and is the biggest vote bank outside the Java heartland.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's Democratic Party won 36 of the seats in 2009, but is struggling in this election. Observers tip the spoils this time will be fought between Golkar, now with 25 seats, and PDI-P, with just 13.

While the so-called "Jokowi effect" is also stirring up things in provinces in Sulawesi and Java, its inroads into Sumatra are especially significant because it sets up a battle between two long-time rivals.

PDI-P traces its origins to the Indonesian National Party of founding president Sukarno, while Golkar is the party of his successor, former president Suharto.

Golkar chairman and aspiring president Aburizal Bakrie brushes off talk of serious inroads being made by PDI-P, led by Sukarno's daughter Megawati Sukarnoputri.

"What's there to be worried about? We are strong here," he told The Straits Times before stepping onto the stage at Thursday's rally in Medan city's iconic Lapangan Merdeka, or Freedom Square.

"Choose a party with a proven track record... elect a leader with experience" was the former coordinating welfare minister's message to some 3,000 supporters, one that emphasises Golkar's establishment credentials against Mr Joko's relative inexperience.

Golkar has now mobilised 50,000 campaign chiefs across the country to reach out to voters. Madam Yunie Tababan, 63, who was transported to the rally from the city outskirts, said she was grateful to Golkar for its help when her husband died recently.

"A Golkar social worker provided me with free ambulance service and some allowance to help me cope with my husband's death as he was the breadwinner," she said. The chief of the North Sumatra Golkar branch, Mr Ajib Shah, said it is outreach work such as this that ensures Golkar's success at election time.

"We have experienced grassroots people with good networks who know their constituents well," he said.

But some residents told The Straits Times that they find Mr Bakrie's big-business connections a turn-off. Recent graft scandals involving Golkar and the Democratic Party have also alienated voters.

While political rivals of the popular Mr Joko point to his lack of experience in high political office - he has served only half his term as Jakarta governor - and say that he has yet to map out his vision as president, some voters such as tailor Erdiman Ginting, 55, are unfazed.

"This man is different from the old-style politicians. Different from elitist parties like Golkar," he said.

Local PDI-P candidates have been quick to exploit his clean and competent reputation. His photo is plastered all over their campaign materials.

PDI-P candidate Wong Chun Sen, vying for a seat in the Medan parliament, has Jokowi's picture on his name cards and pamphlets as well as on banners stuck on trishaws.

"Here, Jokowi is well known and it helps if you go around. People instantly recognise the party and what you are about," he said on a morning campaign trail.

Nationally, Golkar ranks second behind PDI-P, which most surveys predict will win next month's general election.

While political analysts such as Mr Andrinof Chaniago predict a win for PDI-P at the national level, he does not think the party can outdo Golkar in Sumatra despite its surge in the province.

"We note from surveys that Golkar is still very strong in Sumatra and Sulawesi, and PDI-P may gain, but not much," he said.

The latest findings from his Cirus Surveyors Group last month showed that Golkar could garner 24 per cent in Sumatra, and PDI-P 15 per cent.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.