Mental health problems plague Indonesian election hopefuls

Sofyan, (right) an Indonesian candidate in the local legislative election in Cirebon district in Java island is undergoing treatment for stress by an unidentified Islamic cleric in Cirebon.
PHOTO: Mental health problems plague Indonesian election hopefuls

JAKARTA - His body shaking violently, Sofyan screamed loudly as a traditional healer sought to calm the Indonesian election candidate, one of a growing number seeking treatment for mental health problems after polls last week.

"Don't take my votes away. I have spent so much money," he shouted, as the healer chanted softly and poured water mixed with flowers over his body.

Many of the approximately 230,000 candidates running for seats in local and national legislatures across the world's biggest archipelago nation invested huge amounts of their own money to fund campaigns, but some are now paying an even greater price.

Some become stressed or depressed at the prospect of losing everything while others appear to have suffered more severely, such as one who reportedly went stealing his neighbours' sandals before taking refuge up a coconut tree.

Thousands of candidates were treated for stress-related illnesses following the 2009 legislative elections, and reports in recent days suggest that the situation will be the same following the April 9 vote.

While many of those who fall ill are the losers, that is not always the case as the stress and cost of running campaigns can be enormous, whatever the final outcome.

"They have lost their money, land, houses, and one candidate even lost his wife to another man because he was too busy campaigning," said Muhammad Muzakkin, from a traditional healing centre on main Java island, who has treated 51 candidates for stress in the past week.

Many are willing to take the risk however as the rewards from gaining office in Indonesia can be huge - a businessman will find it is easier for his company to win contracts if he is also a politician, and there is ample opportunity to get rich by accepting bribes in a country with a notoriously corrupt political culture.

The lack of campaign funding from parties means that people seeking to run for office in Indonesia generally have to provide money, a huge undertaking that many underestimate before launching their political careers.

Sofyan, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, sold two motorcycles and took out loans to raise more than 300 million rupiah (S$32,700) to fund his campaign for a local parliament seat in Cirebon district, in West Java province.

Results due next month

This covered the cost of materials such as posters and also cash handouts for voters - something that is common in Indonesia although it is officially illegal.

Official results are not released until May but his political team believes he may be on course to win the seat for the Democratic Party of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Nevertheless, he is worried something will go wrong and the prospect that such a huge sum of money could have gone to waste has sent him tumbling into an abyss of depression.

"I don't know what to do if I lose," he said.

Other candidates lose their tempers when they believe they have lost, with some storming polling stations and making off with ballot boxes while one angrily demanded the return of donations he had made to a local mosque.

Psychiatric units at hospitals have said they are ready to treat depressed candidates but many seek help from traditional healers in a country where indigenous beliefs remain strong.

Muzakkin from the clinic on Java said that healers there were using prayers to "shoo away the genies" plaguing depressed candidates, many of whom are at a very low ebb when they arrive.

"One man threw a tantrum and stripped himself naked so he had to be put in an isolation room," he said.

The problem has started to concern the government to such a degree that it wants to amend legislation so that candidates are required to undergo a mental health check before they can run in elections.

Eka Viora, the health ministry's director of mental health, said that the elections could be a "disaster" for candidates, particularly those who lose.

"They lose not only their assets and jobs but also their dignity," she told AFP.

However political analyst Dodi Ambardi cautioned that it was also the responsibility of the individual candidate to assess whether they were up to it.

"It's a risky gamble. If they are clearly not up to the task, they really should not be overconfident and bother to run in the first place."