Elections in an Envelope

On the democratic potential of corruption.

By Elizabeth Pisani
Illustration by Daniel Gray

“Where’s my chicken dinner?”
I was at a polling station in a primary school on the east coast of the United States, about to cast my vote. Being a dual national, I have the dubious privilege of voting in both the US and the UK, but I had lived most of my adult life in other countries — India, Indonesia, Kenya, for example — and I’d never actually voted myself. Now here I was, ready to discharge my civic duty, and no-one was offering me so much as a chicken dinner. No T-shirts, no envelopes of cash. In fact, the local poll-police were so keen to keep the polling station free of undue influences that they made my father take off an election button that declared “I like Ike”, a souvenir of a contest held over five decades earlier.

Chicken dinners, cash and T-shirts were common currency in elections I had reported on in many of the countries I had lived in — though, to be fair, much of the swag is handed out early in the campaign, long before people actually arrive at the polls. Just how varied the payments are only became clear to me in 2012, when I got sucked in to the campaign team of a candidate for mayor in the city of Lhokseumawe, in Indonesia’s northernmost province of Aceh.

Since President Suharto’s über-centralised rule over Indonesia came to an end in 1998, the country has shattered administratively to become one of the world’s most decentralised. And since every one of the nation’s 500-plus districts and 35 provinces now elects its own chief executive and its own parliament, it is also one of the world’s most democratic. Large transfers of funds from the capital Jakarta combine with extraordinary levels of local autonomy to make the job of district head or mayor a great prize. Candidates will go to great lengths to persuade voters that they are the best person for that job.

An acquaintance of mine, Nazaruddin, was running for mayor of Lhokseumawe as an independent candidate, something that’s not allowed in most of Indonesia but that was a concession to the bellicose Acehnese in the peace agreement that ended a long-running rebellion in 2005. I made sympathetic noises: no party backing means no party financing. “Are you kidding me? It’s just the opposite,” he said. “I couldn’t afford to run for a party, even if I wanted to.” The first expense for any potential candidate in a local election, it turns out, is paying a national political party for the privilege of running as their candidate. This can run as high as A$ 4 million for a major party in the most desirable seats, though in Lhokseumawe it probably cost no more than a fifty grand.

That’s just to get the party colours and logo on a poster together with your name. Their colours go on the T-shirts, and the campaign cars, and the “Vote for Candidate Number 2" cards, all of which have to be paid for by the candidate themselves. Once a candidate has their materials in place, they need to recruit their Success Team or “TimSes”. TimSes members schmooze the local business community to raise funds, they go door to door handing out T-shirts or envelopes, they negotiate the price of “endorsements” by community groups. These are supposed to deliver block votes, much as unions in the UK are expected to deliver block votes for labour candidates. Community groups may include the local mosque or religious school, a labour union or artists’ cooperative, the Vespa owner’s club or the organisation of civil service wives. No-one ever explained how a Vespa-owning Moslem union member whose support had been promised to three different candidates was expected to vote.

Another function for the TimSes: to organise party rallies. In Lhokseumawe, all candidates are allotted time in one of the city’s big public spaces so that they can hold a campaign rally. My friend Nazaruddin didn’t use his slot; a rally was just too expensive. There was the cost of providing entertainment: several thousand dollars for any singer good enough to bring in the crowds. He would have had to bulk-buy T-shirts and jilbabs in party colours, then pay people to put them on and show up to the rally — around three dollars per person. A mini-bus driver told me that he got paid three times for each rally, once to hang election banners on his bus for the day (A$ 25), a second time to ship in the participants (at double the regular fare) and a third time to hang around near the rally grounds causing a traffic jam (price negotiable). “They want it to look like it’s really busy; all you have to do is park somewhere inconvenient, and spend the afternoon smoking,” he chuckled. “I just LOVE election time.” On top of that, rally participants expect to be fed and watered; preferably fried chicken and rice, but at the very least cakes and sticky drinks.

Candidates need to pay for press coverage, of course. Members of the TimSes take pictures and write copy, then submit them to local papers from whom they have bought a “package”. In Lhokseumawe, two thousand dollars bought a photo and a three column spread every day during the two-week campaign period. There are culturally specific touches too; Aceh has a great tradition of laudatory poetry, for example, so having a bard on side is a good idea.

I met such a bard one afternoon while sitting in the back room of Nazaruddin’s campaign office. We had hidden behind the closed door to escape the “campaign crocodiles” who hovered around the office talking about how many votes they had locked down in different parts of town. They flattered, they wheedled, and they invented many excuses to shake hands with the candidates and their senior staff, each time hoping that a bank-note would be pressed into their palm. Once they had achieved their goal, they went and did the same to another candidate. Why pay them at all? I asked. If you don’t, there’s a risk they’ll go off and run a “black campaign” against you, I was told. The crocodiles were never allowed into the back office, but the poet was shown in.

He had penned verse in a classical Acehnese format in praise of Nazaruddin; it would be read out at a “community meeting” which would also feature rap music and comedians for the younger voters. The poet began to read his verse — five pages of close type — interrupting himself every now and then to explain a particularly complex allegory. He had forgotten to insert the name of his new patron, however, and thus sung the praises of a candidate from a different party to whom he had already sold the verse. Nazar sent the bard packing, though not until he had pressed two red 100,000 rupiah notes into his hand “because he’s an important cultural figure”.

The most straightforward payments, of course, are cash payments to voters. These can run as low as 30,000 rupiah ($3.00) in overcrowded Java, but reach ten times that level in Papua, where special autonomy funds provide extra money-making opportunities to district heads and legislators. Do these payments work? Apparently not. Some candidates in the April legislative elections actually demanded their money back from TimSes members who promised 60 votes in a given polling station, then failed to deliver even one. Indonesian voters are not daft. They’ll pocket money offered them by all candidates: why not? Then they will go ahead and vote their conscience.

Cartoon by Ben Juers

Some candidates have shifted their munificence away from individual voters, and have given generously instead to local or national election commissioners. Each polling station in Indonesia counts and tallies votes in public, and candidates also pay to put their own observers in as many poling stations as they can afford to. But the election commissions, who compile the totals from different polling stations, are less easily observed. Commissioners are not immune to the blandishments of candidates keen to give their own chances of success a boost. Indeed the head of Indonesia’s Constitutional Court, the arbiter of last resort for electoral matters, was jailed for life in June for taking bribes to skew an election result. The fear that losing candidate Prabowo Subianto might try to “rearrange” the results of July’s presidential election as they travelled up the administrative chain led Indonesia’s savvy voters to defend their democracy with a massive parallel vote count organised through social media.

It’s tempting at first to see the chicken dinners, the T-shirts and the envelopes as a corruption of the democratic process, something that would never happen in a more mature democracy such as the United States or Australia, for example. But wait, what about the billions of dollars that are channelled to political candidates though political action committees which support the interests of a single corporation or industry? What about media groups who clearly promote parties and candidates that will legislate in the interests of the media baron that owns them? Is that any more democratic than selling column inches equally to any candidate willing to pay for them? Surely not.

It is true that the money candidates accept from local businessmen to fund their election rallies will have to be paid back by the winning candidate in the form of contracts, and that TimSes members will have to be rewarded with plum postings for which they may not be qualified. But how does that differ from giving a seat in the House of Lords to the worthy industrialist who happens to be a big party donor?

Indonesians constantly express their disgust at “Money Politics”, though they engage in it with some enthusiasm. In my experience, however, Indonesia’s electoral system is not more corrupt than any other I’ve witnessed. It’s just that the corruption takes place at a much lower level, and thus delivers benefits — cash, T-shirts and chicken dinners at a bare minimum — to an infinitely broader range of people. What could be more democratic than that?

Cartoon by Ben Juers

Elizabeth Pisani is a London-based journalist and epidemiologist, best known for her work on HIV/AIDS. Her latest book is Indonesia etc.