Indonesian celebs recruited to lure voters

Indonesia's House of Representatives at the parliament buidling in Jakarta.

JAKARTA - Having struggled with the absence of a reliable cadre recruitment system and an emotional attachment to the public, many political parties have chosen to rely on instant efforts to win a chunk of the 186 million voters in the upcoming legislative election, including by exploiting the charm of celebrities and public figures.

The Jakarta Post learned that at least 75 out of 6,607 lawmaker candidates vying to win one of 560 House of Representatives seats are public figures from backgrounds including acting, modeling, singing, athletics, comedy and television.

From 12 national political parties competing in the April 9 general election, the National Mandate Party (PAN) has nominated the most public figures, at least 15, including actor Primus Yustisio and comedian Eko "Patrio" Hendro Purnomo. Both are incumbent lawmakers.

Three parties - the Nasdem Party, the National Awakening Party (PKB) and the Gerindra Party - have also each nominated a dozen public figures or more.

Only the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and the Crescent Star Party (PBB) - both Muslim-based parties - have no celebrities in their list of legislator candidates.

Award-winning TV presenter Charles Bonar Sirait, who is running as a Golkar Party candidate for the first Jakarta electoral district covering East Jakarta, admitted that being a celebrity had given him an advantage in the election race.

"With so many candidates competing in one electoral district, people tend to cast their votes for someone they are familiar with, including public figures who have made many media appearances a long time before the election," the 42-year-old father of two told the Post recently.

Having been away from the screen for the past few years, Charles said he employed other strategies to attract young voters who probably had no recollection of him in his heyday as a celebrity.

"I've written several books, including The Power of Public Speaking, which is a best-seller and is read mostly by young people. I believe the book will help them learn about who I am," said Charles, whose parents are long-time supporters of Golkar, currently the country's second-largest political party.

Actress Helmalia Putri, 31, said her experience in the entertainment industry had helped her easily get public recognition even when she was running an election campaign in the Riau Islands.

"In the making of my recent movie, I spoke to many locals who shared their concern about the province's lack of education facilities, power supply and clean water. That inspired me to run as a lawmaker candidate for the province," said Helmalia, who is representing Gerindra to win one of three House seats offered in the province.

In 2009, Gerindra participated for the first time in the general election and managed to secure 4.6 per cent of the vote, making it the eighth-largest party faction in the House.

Unlike Charles and Helmalia who have designed their campaign to approach general voters, Indonesian Justice and Unity Party (PKPI) lawmaker candidate Camellia Lubis, popularly known as Camel Petir (thunder), said she had delivered her campaign in "a rocking and youthful manner" in order to win support from young voters in the second Jakarta electoral district, which covers South Jakarta, Central Jakarta and overseas.

"Camel knows that young voters don't like to discuss heavy issues like ideology. Instead, they are eager to discuss ones relevant to them, like education and unemployment," said the 28-year-old dangdut singer

Established in 1999 by a group of retired army generals and former Golkar officials following the reform movement, the PKPI performed poorly in the 1999, 2004 and 2009 general elections, garnering less than 1.5 per cent of the vote.

Public criticism of the performances of celebrities-turned-politicians escalated after United Development Party (PPP) lawmaker candidate Angel Lelga gave a stuttered response to questions posed by Metro TV talk show host Najwa Shihab about her motivation for contesting the 2014 legislative election.

One of the most embarrassing moments was when Angel, a swimsuit model and actress known for her suggestive performances in local horror movies, apparently ran out of ways to respond to questions and said: "Regarding some of the issues, I haven't asked my party chairman, so I don't have my own opinion. I don't want to meddle in party affairs."

University of Indonesia (UI) political analyst Hamdi Muluk said the increasing participation of public figures in general elections was the consequence of, among others, political parties' failure to develop a merit-based recruitment system.

The new election rule implemented since 2009, which allows individual candidates to secure House seats in exchange for a certain number of votes, made political parties rely on personal appeal of their lawmaker candidates instead of on their collective performances, he added.

To improve election quality, Hamdi said the number of election participants must be significantly reduced in the next elections.

"Reducing the number of parties from 12 to three or four is important since political parties are struggling with a limited number of quality politicians while at the same time voters are overwhelmed with too many lawmaker candidates," he said.

Helmalia, Charles and Camel, however, have chosen to undermine critics questioning their capacity to represent political parties in the upcoming election, saying that all citizens, including celebrities, had an equal opportunity to contribute to the nation through politics.

"I admit I still need to learn more about politics, but I disagree if people merely consider me as a vote getter. I have a master's degree and good educational background. I feel I have the same rights as others to develop my country," Helmalia said.