Indonesia's presidential election: Voters send out mixed signals

Roy, 28, is a disc jockey who loves breakdancing and hanging out with his friends at Merdeka Walk, a hip and popular place in Medan.

Unlike most of his fellow Indonesians, Roy will not be heading to the polling booth on July 9 to cast his vote.

"I feel that is not important because the country remains the same whoever gets voted in. Nothing ever changes," says a disillusioned Roy.

His parents vote but "they don't force me to."

Hussin, 27, and six of his friends have decided not to vote either.

"I voted in the 2009 presidential election. They made all kinds of sweet promises but never delivered. And corruption is still rampant."

"I am sure it is going to be the same thing this time around. I've watched both the presidential candidates debate on TV and neither appeals to me," says Hussin who describes himself as an environment and nature lover.

It is a tough fight between former military commander Prabowo Subianto and Jakarta governor Joko Widodo, more popularly known as Jokowi, for the presidency.

The race is too close to call and excitement is mounting. But both Roy and Hussin want to have nothing to do with it.

They are going "golput" for the 2014 presidential election.

"Golput" is short for Golongan Putih (White Group), a term that refers to people who will not vote or who spoil their votes in elections.

Yenni Chairiah Rambe, head of the General Elections Commission (KPU) in Medan, explains that the term came about as part of a protest movement in the 1970s and it continues to this day.

"Political parties have colours. Each political party, symbol and flag is associated with a colour be it red, yellow, blue, green, or another colour.

"Society who choose not to vote (Golput) have picked white as their colour because it is a neutral colour and does not side with any party," she says.

In Medan, the stastistics on golput is quite startling.

Yenni notes that voter turnout in Medan for the presidential elections has never breached the 50 per cent mark. There seems to be a disinterest in all the elections in Medan.

In last year's election for governor, voter turnout was a mere 36 per cent, which means a whopping 64 per cent were golput.

In the recent legislative election, voter turnout reached 51.8 per cent, and Yenni sees this as a significant improvement.

"Previously, turnout was only in the region of 34 per cent with the highest being around 40 per cent. So by Medan standards, 51.8 per cent turnout is good," she says.

Yenni says there are a number of reasons why people do not vote.

Some are apathetic and have no interest in voting, some are more educated and are not keen on the candidates, some feel elections have no impact on them, while others don't vote for administrative reasons such as they are working or studying far from their hometown where they are registered to vote, or because there are no polling centres in places where they are at, like in hospitals, universities or the airport, she says.

Maruli Pasaribu, head of technicality, law and social participation of KPU in one of the provinces in Medan, wonders if the low voter turnout in Medan is possibly an indication that people are more educated and understand politics more.

"Does it mean they are more discerning and selective in making their pick? And that they analyse the candidates and see if any suits their aspiration? And if none does, they would rather sit out the election than vote?"

But 38-year-old Donny thinks people in Medan are too fed up.

"The Medan mayor (Rahudman Harahap) was jailed for corruption. Before that, the previous mayor (Dr H. Abdillah) and his vice (Ramli Lubis) were also caught for corruption. And our governor (Syamsul Ariffin) too got it for corruption.

"Everyone is tainted and corrupt so who can we trust?" he asks.

However, Aulia Andre, a commissioner with the Election Monitoring Body (Bawaslu) in Medan, believes more people will come out to vote in the presidential election this time because only two candidates are standing, and that in itself is exciting.

"The political atmosphere is hot. People are enthusiastic. This is the first time in Indonesia that we get to pick between two choices and each with their own strength, which makes it politically interesting," he says.

"The governors and mayors have openly thrown their support behind whichever candidate they support and this carries weight."

University of Sumatera Utara academic Dr Amir Purba has fears about how divisive and bruising the election can be on society.

"It's not a good thing having only two candidates because it will make it very easy to split and divide the people, because every person in Indonesia has to choose either number one or number two," he says, adding that if there had been a third candidate, this could cushion society from such a stark divide.

Dr Amir says there is a social joke that the presidential election is causing more divorces because husbands and wives are on different sides of the political spectrum.

"We are afraid and pessimistic if this will make us broken. Why? Because our experience with democracy is only 10 years and the culture of democracy is not strong and not mature as yet," he adds.

But others like businessmen Bambang and Ansar have no such fear because they feel the social glue that holds Indonesia together will stick regardless of who becomes president.

When they are out with friends, they do not discuss politics because "it is boring" and the election process has been dragging on for so many months.

"I am happy there is the World Cup because people will not be focused on only the presidential election," says Bambang, who does not think the number of Golput in Medan and other parts of Indonesia will be so high this time around.

Driver Darwin compares the election of the two presidential candidates to football.

"Both teams are playing to try and embarrass the other side. And you have the crowd cheering them on," he says.

He has doubts about Prabowo because he (Prabowo) carries a lot of baggage from the Suharto era.

After the downfall of Suharto, Prabowo, who was commander of the Special Forces Command (Kopassus), was sacked from the military for gross human rights violations, including the disappearance of activists, and riots during the reformasi period. He was even denied a visa to the US because of this.

"Prabowo was married to Suharto's daughter (Siti Hediati Titiek) but they are now divorced. If he can't even manage his own household, how can he expect to manage our population of 250 million?" remarks Darwin unkindly.

Darwin has equally harsh words for Jokowi, who he believes has a reputation of not seeing things through till the end.

"He was governor of Solo but he left that job to become the governor of Jakarta. And he's been governor of Jakarta for only two years and he now wants to give that up to become president.

"He is unreliable and keeps jumping around. He doesn't complete the vision and job he has started."

Darwin is still considering whether to go to the polls or be a golput.

A Golput Facebook page urges people to stay away from the 2014 presidential election, saying that neither candidate is transparent or clean and "to avoid falling into the same hole."

Edy Suhartono of the KPU Medan who is in charge of data, however, hopes there will be less golput this time around.

He also hopes the smear campaign that is going on will not put people off.

"If people don't vote, then they shouldn't blame the leaders who get voted in because they have themselves to blame for not making a choice," he says.

Maruli, also from KPU, believes it is important to educate people that choosing the country's leadership is a joint responsibility that will decide the fate of the nation.

"Being golput is not a solution. Abstaining from voting is not the way to find a resolution," he says, adding that this process should be done slowly and by offering high calibre and quality candidates so that people will have hope.

"If their promise is fulfilled, then people will start to feel that using their vote has meaning and makes a difference. Then they will feel it is worth it."