Vote-buying rife in Indonesia

WEETABULA, Indonesia - Indonesians on the remote island of Sumba happily accept chickens and pork from legislative candidates hunting for votes. But, just six months ago, vote-rigging allegations triggered bloody riots on the island.

Fifteen people were killed, most hacked to death with machetes, and 75 homes burnt to the ground after accusations emerged that the winner of an election in Southwest Sumba had bribed the Constitutional Court to declare him the district chief.

A string of surveys ahead of nationwide legislative polls on Wednesday show that honesty and freedom from corruption are the top qualities sought in political candidates by Indonesians weary of the country's endemic graft.

But, paradoxically, the polls also reveal that millions of Indonesians see vote-buying as acceptable.

"There is this disconnect. People don't see this practice as corruption. They don't see that by accepting the money they're contributing to corruption," the Asia Foundation's Indonesia country representative, Sandra Hamid, told AFP.

A recent Asia Foundation survey found that more than 40% of Indonesian voters would accept cash or a gift from legislative candidates, while other surveys put the figure above 50%.

"They see the enormous amounts of money involved in high-level corruption cases, so if they see 50,000 rupiah (around 130 baht) in front of them, they think 'OK, I'll just grab it'," Ms Hamid said.

At a recent rally in the capital Jakarta, thousands of supporters of the Golkar party -- the country's second-biggest -- wearing bright yellow T-shirts emblazoned with portraits of candidates were bussed in from all over the city.

They devoured free lunches, ranging from rice and chicken to McDonald's, and mimicked the pelvic thrusts of singers on stage performing "dangdut", an Indonesian fusion of Arabic, Malay, Indian and Western pop notorious for its lewd lyrics.

Most admitted they were promised 50,000 rupiah on the bus ride back home, but said they saw nothing wrong with it.

"It's not vote-buying. It's just for fuel and drinks," insisted 56-year-old Djami'at Ibrahim, even though transport and drinks were provided.

The handouts may seem tiny, but they mean a great deal to many in Indonesia, where half the population of 250 million people live below or hover around the poverty line of US$2 a day.

Many who attend rallies are young or from poorer sectors of society, and some are transported in from slums with no clean water or electricity.

However, giving out money does not guarantee a candidate support at the legislative elections, which will set the stage for presidential polls in July.

More than 55% of those quizzed in a survey by pollster Indikator in December said they would accept cash from a candidate, but not necessarily vote for them.

Many take the money and don't vote at all, disillusioned with a parliament that consistently ranks as one of the country's most graft-ridden institutions in corruption perception surveys.

A slew of lawmakers have been jailed for rigging tenders and misusing state funds in recent years, and chronic absenteeism and photographs of MPs asleep in session feature prominently in the media.

Father Michael Keraf is waging a campaign to counter what he calls the "evil act" of vote-buying on Sumba, a predominantly Christian, deeply poor island in the centre of the Muslim-majority Indonesian archipelago.

"We try to teach the people, don't just look at money. To give a very simple illustration -- a chicken at the market is $5 to $10 these days. If you accept a chicken from a candidate, you're saying your integrity is worth nothing more than a chicken," said the pastor.

"Explaining it this way has got people thinking."

Greater Internet access has provided a platform for better monitoring. A number of websites have been set up where people can report candidates who attempt to buy votes, while others do thorough background checks on candidates and expose the corrupt.

In Southwest Sumba, the election commission finally admitted it made an "error" and that the incumbent, Kornelius Kodi Mete, had won. But there is a stalemate as the Constitutional Court ruled the opposite, and the district remains without a chief.

The court's chief judge, Akil Mochtar, was arrested shortly after the deadly riots, accused of accepting bribes of more than $5 million to fix 11 elections, although he has not been charged over Southwest Sumba's poll.

While small offerings are made to everyday Indonesians, those with influence over communities are worth a little more.

Leaders of a religious minority and their partners were recently invited to the home of a legislative candidate near Jakarta.

The wife of one leader, who wished to remain anonymous, said they were given clothing and envelopes stuffed with cash, and the candidate promised to push through a law to help the minority.

"I would say he was trying to buy our votes and my husband's influence. I think it's wrong," she said.

However, she admitted that she accepted the money and would likely vote for the candidate.

"But I was going to vote for him anyway. It's nothing to do with the money."

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