Tradition is always difficult to change, especially when it comes to political reforms.
My friend, Wahyu, invited me to see the election of his village’s chief. One of his uncles, with the support of his entire extended family, is a candidate of this year’s election. Elections like this are held once every four years. Therefore, people with proper ID cards but who had left and worked elsewhere can come back to participate in this process.
We took a local bus from Yogyakarta to Magelang, then another one to Samerang, finally one to Derma, a village 25 km east of Samerang. The trip took only a few hours but the humidity had exhausted me. Fortunately, once I arrived, I was greeted with many smiles from the elders to the small children.
Any special events in any villages are always a reason for feast. Preparation and promotion of this election had been going on for months. Everyone is eager to see how their efforts will pay off and the results in these final days. At nighttime, family members gathered outside the candidate’s house after dinners for chatting and greeting of potential voters who stop by to show support under the big tent.
The next morning, I woke up to a strange sight – family members stuffing small envelopes with small bank notes, about 25,000 rupiah each ($2.5). Photos of the candidate and names of the voters are then stapled neatly on each envelope to avoid confusion. These envelopes will be given to each and every potential voter in the village on the night before the election, to solidify their support, in a way at least. It takes all day and night for the committee (family) members to finish this entire process. Since having a village chief in the family can bring prestige and honor, entire extended family will contribute to this election. I was told that his family for this election spent between 15 to 20 million rupiah. Are these efforts worth it? Only time can tell.
We escaped some of these activities during the day by going to Kudus, a nearby town famous for cigarette making, in a 20-year-old Vespa. After inhaling a considerable amount of pollution on the first major highway built in Java (connecting Jakarta to Surabaya), we arrived at the Cigarette Museum. As a non-smoker all my life, I felt strange walking into a museum that I have not much interest in. The notion of buying poison to put in one’s body is unthinkable for me, not to mention the politics behind the huge tax support of large companies to the government.
Anyhow, I strolled through the museum’s exhibition of an entire Indonesian family rose to fame and make history in this industry. It is amazing to see that nowadays hundred of brands were actually evolved from the original few.
On Election Day, we woke up bright and early and walked to the large field behind the school before 7:30am. Three of the five candidates had already arrived. They sat on the beautifully embroidered sofa in the center of the giant tent. My friend’s uncle stood next to his wife looking very nervous, while the others two looked more serene and confident. Another candidate arrived with his wife shortly afterward. Last but not least, the final candidate, in his 20s, waved and walked into the tent with his own encherages and overconfidence. All of them now sat across the stage watching and wondering who is going to make it to the final finished line.
The lines of villagers eagerly waiting outside the tent continued to lengthen until the voting process actually started after a list of announcements. Everyone waited patiently for the officials to check their Ids, then proceeded to go inside a curtained room to check off their candidates on the voting paper. Immediately after, they put the same piece of vote into the large wooden box.
Man gathered to chat. Women and young girls gossiped. Children kept staring at the balloons and paper toys until their parents buy for them. Hungry souls visited the few food stalls for iced drinks and snacks. I just tried to feel invisible among the crowds.
Voting was halted during midday and resumed around 2pm. By late afternoon, the results were obvious. The quiet but young candidate with a rich wife, who had stuffed the most money into his envelopes, won. The arrogant candidate left before the voting count due to low turnout embarrassment. My friend’s uncle and the other two older candidates, although disappointed, generously receded after the results came in.
On that day, all the villages in the Derma Regency had elections. The victors will bring great prestige to their families. These chiefs will receive many rice fields as rewards. They will decide to support or reject policies from the village committee and proceed to ask for funding from the national government. The losers will try again, if chances allow, in the future. This is ‘democracy at work’ - in a country that had come a long way from Soeharto’s iron fist until 1998, now finally achieve true democracy - popular vote for its own president (which many Indonesians can now proudly proclaimed as achievement over the US, a so-called democracy.)