New breed of candidates from humble backgrounds

MOTORCYCLE-TAXI driver Sulaiman, who is contesting a seat in the Bekasi city assembly, is grateful for all the interviews he has done lately on national television.

"I don't have money to fund my campaign," Mr Sulaiman, who like some Indonesians goes by one name, told The Straits Times, chuckling. "All this media attention is God's blessing. This is a free campaign."

The 37-year-old law school dropout is among a new breed of candidates from all over Indonesia who come from humble backgrounds.

They include shoe repairmen and parking attendants, and judging from the media attention they are getting, they are a breath of fresh air for a populace disgusted with stories of better-qualified yet corrupt assemblymen.

In Denpasar, Bali, shoe repairman Hartoyo Jabarudin, 40, is running for a seat in the city assembly. The Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) candidate has printed invoices with his name and a campaign message, which he gives to those whose shoes he fixes for between 20,000 rupiah (S$2.20) and 80,000 rupiah.

In Subang, West Java, car tyre repairman Raska is also on a PKS ticket, while in Banyuwangi, East Java, newspaper vendor Suratin is on a newly formed National Democrat Party ticket and hopes to get the support of her newspaper customers.

With high voter interest in Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, a former furniture businessman, due to his common man's touch and clean image, political parties are similarly turning to candidates with unassuming backgrounds.

This is in stark contrast to 2009, when the spotlight was on celebrity candidates. The smaller parties also turn to these newbies to cobble together a full slate of candidates.

Mr Sulaiman started his political career two years ago, helping to hang up posters for a mayoral candidate for his hometown.

Soon after, he was tapped by the Muslim-based Crescent Star Party to run for the assembly.

He says he has spent only 200,000 rupiah to print 1,000 stickers. A senior party cadre paid for another 3,000 stickers, which he distributes to passengers in his taxi.

"This is how I introduce myself. Nothing else. I have no money to buy posters and all," he said.

His taxi takings are 50,000 rupiah to 100,000 rupiah a day, before deducting 15,000 rupiah for fuel and food. He lives in a 3m by 6m house - with his wife and two children - like many of his voters.

His campaign pledges include free schooling and health care for the poor in Bekasi.

Neighbour Agus Dertha, 45, said Mr Sulaiman's only weakness is his lack of political experience.

He added: "He has no hidden agenda; he is too honest compared with other MPs. And yet he is hard-working."

That aura of honesty is a key selling point.

"Some people also say that if candidates are not so highly educated, that might be better - they are less prone to think up clever ways to be corrupt," Mr Abdur Rozaki of the Institute for Research and Empowerment told a forum in Jakarta yesterday.

Experienced or not, many of these first-time candidates know just what they will do if elected.

Among them is parking attendant Heri Santoso, 45, from Jember, East Java, who is on an Indonesian Justice and Unity Party ticket.

"I'm a commoner and I know how a commoner feels exactly every day - how difficult it can be to have food on the table and to afford other needs," he said.

He said he would make sure more money was allocated for social programmes to help the poor.

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