Electioneering in Sulawesi
Posted on Oct 15, 2012 / Author: Per Unheim / Tags: Politics, Policy and Diplomacy, Education, Culture and Communities, Campaigns, Elections, Indonesia, Sulawesi
In its natural state, the drive from the coastal town of Pare Pare to Rentipao, nestled in the hills north and inland in Indonesia’s South Sulawesi province, is beautiful. After leaving the glistening waters of the easternmost reaches of the Java Sea in Pare Pare, the road twists and turns through rich, green palm forests, verdant hillsides and impressive panoramic views. Interspersed at regular intervals along the way is one small village after another, most of which seem nearly untouched by the modernity that characterizes Indonesia’s larger cities. But while modern amenities and structures tend to decrease the further north one travels along this narrow road, the inverse can be said for the political campaign signs that now monopolize its shoulders.
While the election to choose the next Governor of South Sulawesi will not be held until January 2013, the first of these campaign signs appeared at least six months ago. At that point the road described above hosted only a modest handful of signs belonging primarily to a single candidate. Half a year later, with still over five months to go before the people of South Sulawesi go to the polls, the roadside is now blanketed with political posters large and small. And by large, I mean very large, and sometimes rather intimidating.
The most prominent among them belongs to the incumbent Governor, known simply as “Komandan.” This candidate’s larger-than-life posters feature a rather menacing profile photograph of the man’s face - typically about three metres in length - combined with the now ubiquitous slogan of “Don’t Stop Komandan!” or, similarly but perhaps accidentally quite different, “Don’t Stop, Komandan!” over a black background. One is therefore left with the impression that campaigning against the man will bring certain unspecified but clearly unpleasant misfortunes, or that the people of South Sulawesi are united in favour of the incumbent due to the many great things he may have achieved during his first tenure. Other posters feature the usual smiling faces of consummate politicians promising the world or professing their various virtues.
To me this profusion of political signage brings to mind a number of things. The first is the apparent lack of a regulatory structure (or enforcement of it) that governs the terms of an election campaign. Whereas in Canada candidates risk heavy penalties if they do not adhere to strict rules governing the dimensions and life cycles of their campaign materials, this type of system has yet to take hold in this still young democracy.
Second, they reiterate the truism that democracy is messy, not just from a political point of view, but also, in this case, an environmental point of view.
Third, my focus on the road between Pare Pare and Rentipao stems from the fact that this is where you will find the heaviest concentration of such posters; while you see nothing but signs around every turn in the less populated and most isolated parts of the province, you generally see nothing of the sort in the province’s larger towns and cities, such as Makassar. This could be because of the preference for alternative methods gubernatorial candidates tend to see as more effective at capturing people’s attention and support in urban environments: TV and large circulation newspapers. Political signs in the city would have to compete with the profusion of other advertisements that dot the landscape in such environments, whereas at the village level, there is rarely anything else as prominent on which to focus one’s gaze. Finally, the size and sheer number of these signs, to me, is in itself a sign of the investments candidates are willing to make in getting elected, investments they assume they will be able to recoup many times over through the perks (both legal and not) associated with holding office.
So is there anything wrong with this visual politicization of the countryside? On the bright side, it signals that the democratic process is alive and well in Indonesia, at least on the surface. But it also signals that the consolidation of this process has a long way to go: without regulations governing the use of signs, candidates with the most money and connections have an obvious advantage over those less able to have their faces watching over every intersection and bend in the road. Beyond that, particularly after several hours of driving through these typically very scenic corridors, the signs eventually come across as a particularly unpleasant form of esthetic pollution. Environmentally, the amount of waste produced by these massive campaign signs is likely to be significant. And of course psychologically and personally, it is probably safe to say that the average passenger would prefer not to have images of smiling politicians imprinted in their brains after being subjected to four hours of seeing nothing but their larger-than-life faces outside their windows.
Either way, it will be interesting to find out which of these faces is preferred by the voters of South Sulawesi in early 2013. The result, no doubt, will be a sign of the times…
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.