Early election campaigning draws flak as Indonesia grapples with Covid-19

A billboard of Mr Muhaimin Iskandar, chairman of the National Awakening Party.
A billboard of Mr Muhaimin Iskandar, chairman of the National Awakening Party.PHOTO: ELANG PRATAMA

JAKARTA - They say it is never too early to start campaigning for a presidential election but some prospective candidates in Indonesia have come under fire for doing so because the country is in the grip of a pandemic.

Billboards featuring three prominent aspirants for the nation's highest office cropped up on the streets of Jakarta, Surabaya and other cities in the past week.

The image of Mr Airlangga Hartarto, chairman of Indonesia's oldest party, Golkar, is seen on billboards which are painted in the distinctive colour of the party, yellow. All are stamped with 2024 - the election year - in bold type as well as the slogan " Working for Indonesia."

Mr Airlangga, 58, is the country's chief economics minister, who has been tasked by President Joko Widodo to coordinate efforts to curb the spread of the highly transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus in regions outside of Java and Bali.

The billboards featuring Ms Puan Maharani, 47, daughter of ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) chief Megawati Sukarnoputri, promise to promote pluralism. Some PDI-P cadres in June had pushed Ms Puan, currently the parliamentary Speaker, to enter the next presidential race.

Another conspicuous billboard is that of Mr Muhaimin Iskandar, 54, chairman of the Islamic-leaning National Awakening Party (PKB). The message is simple, bold and straightforward - "Gus Muhaimin for 2024". Gus is a common title in Java given to the son of a kiyai, or the head of an Islamic school, who usually would take over the father's position and thus in turn earn the kiyai title.

The early effort at campaigning, however, has not gone down well with everyone, judging by some of the responses on social media.

"Billboard is a preferred battleground for those who have under-performed in the real-world," netizen Joel Picard wrote on Twitter on Aug 7.

Another netizen, Imran Daulay post collated photos of the billboards and contrasted them with two photos of medical staff treating Covid-19 patients in hospital, obviously making the point that one group was selfless.

Another Twitter user, Mr Kifni Taufik, said: "If they would take it easy a little bit, and channel those funds to social aid, that would mean a lot."

Veteran politician Abdillah Toha agreed, saying the funds used to put up the billboards in various cities could have been channelled instead to help the poor who have been hit hard by the pandemic.

The co-founder of the National Mandate Party (PAN), Mr Toha was a Member of Parliament and an adviser to former vice-president Boediono.

Putting up a billboard for political campaigns on a main street in Jakarta would mean paying up to 25,000 rupiah (S$2.36) per sq m per day to the municipal authorities. A common 25 sq m billboard will therefore cost about 625,000 rupiah (S$59) a day, equivalent to the cost of six boxes of face masks, or a decent lunch for a month at a food stall. That amount excludes the cost of making the billboard.

Officials from the three parties contacted by The Straits Times did not respond to queries.

Indonesia will hold presidential and national legislative elections on Feb 28, 2024.

In the next presidential poll, contenders will not face an incumbent, who typically enjoys a huge advantage over challengers. President Joko Widodo is serving his second five-year term, and cannot seek re-election under the Constitution.

Though the election is 2½ years away, reports say several other prominent figures may also enter the fray.

They include State-Owned Enterprise Minister Erick Thohir, 50, Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, 52, Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo, 52, and West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil, 49.

Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto, 68, who was twice defeated when he ran against Mr Widodo, is also said to be considering another run.

South-east Asia's most populous nation is still coming to grips with a fresh wave of Covid-19 cases, mostly caused by the Delta variant, with strict restrictions imposed in many parts of the archipelago. The number of confirmed cases in Java and Bali, where 60 per cent of the population live, have recently reduced but not so in the regions beyond these two islands.

Indonesia has so far reported about 3.75 million cases and more than 112,000 deaths. On Wednesday (Aug 11), it recorded 30,625 new cases, and another 1,579 people died.