Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May-June 2009, pages 44-45

Islam and the Near East in the Far East

Indonesia Votes as Economic Crisis Bites

By John Gee

  • Two days before Indonesia’s April 9 parliamentary elections, an anti-boycott campaigner in Jakarta gives a flower to a bus passenger as a reminder to vote (AFP photo/Bay Ismoyo).

ECONOMIC crises, when they coincide with election years, usually put incumbent governments under great pressure, and Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono faces a hard fight to retain office. He is up for re-election in July and, if no candidate gains over 50 percent of the vote, there will be a run-off later in the year between the two leading contenders.

A first test of voters’ intentions will be the outcome of the April 9 general election, in which 171 million citizens were eligible to vote for members of the House of Representatives (Indonesia’s parliament). During the campaign, however, despite a deluge of leaflets and posters and intense media coverage, much of the public seemed unenthusiastic about all 38 of the parties contesting the election. In the previous contest in 2004, slightly over two out of three voters cast ballots.

The final results are not due until May 9, so, unlike in Western democracies, where the more motivated stay up late at night and watch the returns on television as they come in, Indonesians have a full month to wait while news dribbles out of how the count is going.

The three leading contenders were all secular parties. Golkar, led by Yusuf Kalla, currently Indonesia’s vice-president, held 128 seats in the outgoing 550-member parliament; politically amorphous, one of its strengths was that it retained from its years as the ruling party before 1998 a nationwide network of members and sympathizers embedded in administrative and other institutions across most of Indonesia. Ex-President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P), which held 109 seats in the outgoing parliament, made a pitch for the support of workers facing unemployment and insecurity. These two parties, which both tend to see themselves as natural parties of government, joined forces in 2004 to try to block Yudhoyono’s road to power.

Yudhoyono could not have won in 2004 without the support of a range of organizations, including two major Muslim parties. His Democratic Party won only 57 seats, and he hopes to see its representation increase substantially so that he will not be dependent on the support of either Golkar or PDI-P. Last time around, cooperation with Golkar following his election victory helped provide Yudhoyono with a strong base of parliamentary support, but at a price in political initiative.

Among the parties trying to gain a foothold in parliament are Gerindra and Hanura. Though newly formed, they look like blasts from the past. Gerindra (Greater Indonesia Movement) presents itself as a pro-small farmer and worker party, but is led by Prabowo Subianto, ex-son-in-law of the dictator Suharto, and a general under the Suharto regime. He was appointed commander of the elite military formation Kopassus in 1995. Kopassus was later involved in encouraging the militia violence that swept East Timor after its people dared to vote for independence. As the old regime collapsed in 1998, Prabowo is reported to have planned a coup to save it. He was opposed on that occasion by armed forces commander-in-chief General Wiranto, who now is the leader of Hanura, which stands on an anti-corruption, clean government platform, but who is remembered internationally for his failure to rein in the Kopassus/militia devastation of East Timor in 1999.

The two largest religious parties looked to be struggling to hold their ground during the election campaign. Among the Muslim parties, political analysts focused their attention on the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), with its polished presentation, a network of young middle-class activists and an anti-corruption agenda. It tried hard to maintain a high public profile, and was at the forefront of protests against Israel’s recent assault on the Gaza Strip. It has lost some of its momentum recently, harmed by internal rifts and allegations that a prominent member has succumbed to the temptation of corruption. The PKS held 45 seats in the outgoing parliament.

The outcome of the general election will set the scene for the presidential election. Only parties with at least 20 percent of the 560 seats in the new parliament, or with 25 percent of the popular vote, may put forward candidates. Pre-election opinion polls suggested that Yudhoyono was sure of qualifying to run in the presidential elections on the basis of the popular vote.

This despite the deteriorating economic situation. Indonesia’s economy was growing strongly before the recession, and the government had made some moves to counter corruption, but a contraction of markets in Western luxury shops for goods produced in Indonesia has hit it hard, already resulting in over half a million job losses. A fall in demand overseas for Indonesian migrant labor and a consequent loss of remittance payments has made matters worse. In 2008, when the crisis struck, 5.8 million Indonesians worked abroad.

Malaysia’s “Foreign Workers First Out” Policy

When Talat Mahmud Khan, the Bangladesh High Commission’s labor attaché in Malaysia, said that 70,000 of his compatriots would be coming to take jobs there, he must have had no idea of the storm he would unleash. Following his March 8 statement, the Malaysian Trades Union Congress was at the forefront in demanding that the Bangladeshi workers be excluded from the country. Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar said that the the number of workers whose visas had been approved was 55,147—but that was before the economic crisis. All their visas would now be cancelled.

This leaves those workers badly out of pocket. Typically, male migrant workers in Bangladesh pay the equivalent of $5,300-plus to recruiters, agents and others to secure jobs overseas. They sell their homes or land or borrow money from loan sharks in the expectation of making good earnings in richer countries. Many of these workers will have parted with this money already and have nothing to show for it.

Malaysia’s response to the economic crisis has been to call for firms in financial difficulty to fire foreign employees before locals and to commit itself to drastically reducing the number of foreign workers in the country. In October, Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak said that Malaysia wanted to cut the number of foreign workers by 400,000 annually between 2008 and 2010.

Officially there were 2.1 million present, of a total workforce of 10.9 million. Over a million more migrant workers are present unofficially, mostly from Indonesia, but also including workers from Bangladesh and Burma. Most perform jobs that are poorly paid, arduous, or both, so locals don’t want those. They include jobs in plantations and the construction industry—nor will the 380,000 domestic workers find Malaysians standing in line for their positions.

In January, the Human Resources Ministry said that no more foreigners should be employed in the manufacturing and services sector. The one million already employed there reportedly were to be sent home when their visas expired or they were laid off.

The moves will sour relations with some other countries in the region. Of the officially employed foreign workers, 1.1 million are from Indonesia—although most of those who are expelled may be undocumented workers. Half a million are Bangladeshis. 


John Gee is a free-lance journalist based in Southeast Asia, and the author of Unequal Conflict: The Palestinians and Israel.

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