[Salim Osman] In search of the ideal president for Indonesia

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Jan 23, 2014 - 20:00
  • Updated : Jan 23, 2014 - 20:00
As the debate on the ideal presidential candidate for Indonesia rages on, a trio of religious men are looking for good candidates for the July polls on their own.

Well-known Islamic cleric Solahuddin Wahid of the Nahdlatul Ulama and his close friends, prominent Christian pastor Nathan Setiabudi and Catholic priest Franz Magnis Suseno, launched a selection process two weeks ago. Called “konvensi rakyat,” or people’s convention, they rolled out the scheme at a hotel in Surabaya, East Java, with support from five activists.

The seven participants they shortlisted in the first round comprised two former government ministers, a university rector, a women’s rights activist, a businessman, a Muslim activist and a Kalimantan regent. The process will be repeated in three other cities by the end of the month.

Those shortlisted will then socialize with voters, speak to an audience of their vision and mission should they be elected president and engage in a public debate. A survey firm will also test their popularity.

The winner will be offered a chance to run under a party ticket. The organizers will approach parties looking for candidates and suggest they field the selection winner in the presidential contest. This is to fulfil the requirement of the 2008 Presidential Election Law, which states that candidates must be nominated by a political party or parties having 20 percent of seats in parliament, the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat, or 25 percent of valid votes in legislative elections.

The event rivals that of the presidential convention of the ruling Democratic Party that is now going on. The party shortlisted 11 presidential hopefuls, who went through a process similar to that of the convention of the religious trio, starting on Jan. 6 in Jakarta and going until the end of the month.

The party’s convention is meant to pick a candidate to succeed its founder, two-term President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who cannot seek re-election because the Constitution bars him from seeking a third term.

It is intriguing why Solahuddin and his group went to such great lengths scouting for candidates and raising their own funding. He said he and his group took it as a national duty to hold the event because Indonesians want a good leader. The group even looked for candidates who worked abroad and persuaded them to take part in the convention.

“We hope that the people’s convention could identity leaders who understand the people’s aspirations and lead the country to prosperity,” he said.

The cleric said that voters would have a wider choice in selecting leaders, and thus would not be as quick to join the Golongan Putih, or white group, which declines to vote as a form of protest.

The number of people who refused to vote during elections has been rising. According to a study by the Kompas daily, some 10.21 percent of voters abstained in the legislative elections in 1999, a year after the fall of Suharto. This rose to 29.01 percent in the 2009 elections.

Figures for the presidential polls are just as bad. In 2004, some 21.7 percent did not vote in the first round, and 23.3 percent sat out the second round. In 2009, 27.4 percent did not vote.

One reason suggested for this in many studies was that voters were disillusioned with political parties that were corrupt and did not fight for their interests. In the presidential polls, voters felt they did not have much choice.

The konvensi rakyat reflects the disillusionment that Solahuddin and his group share with many Indonesians over the current slate, which includes candidates rejected in two previous polls.

Just how important is Solahuddin’s bid to get the right people to come forward and take a shot at the highest office in the land?

First, the convention is significant because the three religious men do have influence in Indonesia. Solahuddin is a director of a pesantren (Islamic boarding school) in East Java, part of the Muslim heartland where the bulk of the voters are found. He is from Nahdlatul Ulama, which has 30 million members.

Christian pastor Nathan Setiabudi is a leader of the Indonesian Communion of Churches, which represents Protestant Christians. Catholic priest Franz Magnis Suseno is a director of the Driyakara School of Philosophy and a respectable social critic.

All three have huge followings, and are sought after by the media for their political views.

When the group started scouting for candidates in November, they managed to persuade a number of aspiring candidates to come forward because the religious men had some sway over them.

Even if they failed to be selected in this round, these candidates are personalities to be watched in the future.

Second, the event went ahead without the support of political parties, and the group has no control over mass media to reach out to voters. But they were given some publicity by media organizations not owned by any presidential aspirants.

Remarkably, the organizers even raised their own funds, through private donations, to finance the event. It has not been disclosed how much they are spending but, by comparison, the Democratic Party is spending a staggering 40 billion rupiah ($3.3 million) on its convention.

Solahuddin would say only that the event was being funded by private individuals “who want change and what is best for Indonesia.”

It is a commendable effort despite the limitations, but such a recruitment drive should have been done by political parties, where young talents are usually groomed to be leaders.

It is clear there is no dearth of potential leaders, and the current exercise implies that the search for the ideal president is still continuing.

By Salim Osman

Salim Osman is a senior writer at The Straits Times. ― Ed.

(The Straits Times/Asia News Network)