INTERACT fellow Saskia Schaefer discusses her recent Indonesia election research

Saskia Schaefer portrait

Saskia Schaefer, 2013 – 2014 INTERACT Postdoctoral Fellow in Modern Southeast Asian Studies at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and part-time lecturer in Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, discusses her recent visit to Indonesia to study the country’s 2014 elections.

The International Network to Expand Regional and Collaborative Teaching (INTERACT) is a pioneering program at Columbia University that focuses on developing global studies in the undergraduate curriculum through a network of postdoctoral scholars focused on cross-regional, trans-regional and interdisciplinary teaching. Through innovative courses and active involvement in all dimensions of campus intellectual life, the INTERACT scholars seek to improve global literacy among Columbia students and equip them to be leaders in a globalizing world.     

[During my annual visit to Indonesia, in January of the election year 2014, I meet more pessimists than optimists.]

“Expectations? I am not expecting anything. I didn’t vote last time and I am not going to vote this time. During the first elections, in 1999, I wore a T-shirt with a slogan on it and went campaigning. They promised that we would be paid back all the efforts in cash. But that never happened.” Rudi’s eyes flash as he looks at me through the rear mirror. He is from West Java and has been working as a taxi driver in the capital Jakarta for 12 years. He knows about politics, he follows the debates. But he hasn’t voted since 1999. Asked about the upcoming parliamentarian elections in Indonesia, he smiles resignedly: “What for?”

In the late 1990s, when I first visited Indonesia as a student, most people I encountered were in a euphoric mood. Suharto’s crusted regime had just fallen in 1998, the new temporary president Habibie had been educated abroad and seemed willing to hand over power to democratically elected representatives. The media landscape was transformed into one of the freest in Asia; foreign-funded NGOs were blossoming and spreading an air of progress and optimism. From far, I followed Indonesia’s elections: 1999, 2004, 2009 — all classified as free and fair by international observers. Throughout my time as a student of political science and Southeast Asian history, I spent good parts of my holidays at Indonesian universities. Indonesian students love discussions; they meet and sit down to talk for hours while sipping sugary jasmine tea. They invited me to give small talks; I would find myself surrounded by curious students, keen to jump in and challenge and debate every little sentence. There is an indescribable energy in a room full of young eager students of politics, law, and philosophy who sense that they are living in a time and place in which they can newly shape their country. I remember drawing a circle on a blackboard, surrounded by small boxes: the elections, central to democracy, surrounded by political and civil rights and by the separation of powers. The Indonesian students and I looked at each other and knew that it wasn’t complete. We had a nice and neat model of the wisdom of liberal democratic theory here — but it didn’t help us grasp reality. “Should the elections really be in the center?” somebody asked. I shrugged: “I’m not sure. That’s what I’ve been taught. What do you think?” They weren’t so sure either. And this was what they had been taught too. I have since been trying to find out what else could possibly be in the center. Additionally, or instead.

This rainy season, while Jakarta suffers its annual floods, the Indonesian media is celebrating and watching Joko Widodo — known as Jokowi — the current governor of Jakarta. He is a potential candidate for the presidential elections that are scheduled for July. Famous for his spontaneous visits to slums and hospitals, people see Jokowi as “one of them” and admire the strength with which he seems determined to combat inefficiency and corruption. Another main contender is Prabowo Subianto, a businessman, politician and former Special Forces soldier. His background in business and the military, I was told many times, promises political potency. Neither of them has very detailed policy plans, nor do the other potential and confirmed candidates. Indonesian politics — as increasingly elsewhere — are more about personalities than about parties and their plans and programs. “They’re all the same!” sneered Rudi at the end of our ride.



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