Jakarta, Indonesia – Indonesia will see nearly 10,000 people, including some from the country’s ethnic Chinese minority, contest Wednesday’s general election to become one of the 580 lawmakers in the national parliament.
According to the General Elections Commission (KPU) of Indonesia, there are 9,917 candidates representing 18 political parties in 38 provinces. Among those on the run are Indonesians of Chinese descent, who numbered about 2.8 million in Indonesia’s former-237 million people, in the 2010 national census. The latest 2020 census does not list its ethnicities.
For Chinese Indonesians, democracy has given them political rights that were previously denied.
For more than 30 years under the rule of Soeharto, who stepped down after mass protests in 1998, Chinese Indonesians were not allowed to publicly celebrate the Lunar New Year and assimilation policies were introduced to become more “Indonesian”, effectively making them second-class citizens. Many have turned to business and the private sector to earn a living after being restricted from government positions.
“Politics is not for everyone,” said Taufiq Tanasaldy, a senior lecturer in Indonesian and Asian studies at the University of Tasmania. “Especially for the Chinese who suffered decades of discriminatory policies under the Soeharto regime.”
But Taufiq said interest “grew after Soeharto because of political reforms and policies aimed at eliminating discriminatory practices”, referring to equal opportunities for ethnic Chinese to run for office and vote in their preferred candidates.
“The elections or appointments of many Chinese individuals in national and regional politics have sparked this growing interest. Seeing their initial ‘success’ is important to the Chinese community,” he told Al Jazeera.
Among the prominent Chinese who joined politics is former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok. He was later jailed for blasphemy over comments made on the campaign trail and has adopted a low profile since his release.
“The representation is steady, definitely not getting worse,” Taufiq said.
But for many Chinese voters in Indonesia, Taufiq said, “parties with nationalist platforms are more attractive compared to those promoting sectarian values … especially at the national level”.
With over 270 million people, Indonesia has around 205 million eligible voters participating in the 2024 poll. The general election is scheduled to take place just four days after the Lunar New Year. February 14 is also Ash Wednesday, a holy day for Indonesian Catholics.
Despite representation, the current system of proportional representation may disadvantage some candidates who must directly campaign for seats.
R Siti Zuhro, a political science research professor at Indonesia’s National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN), said the open list made it “very difficult to compete” for some candidates in comparison. in the previous system where votes went to parties rather than individual candidates.
“It depends more on the legislative candidate [to do the work] – whether it’s their effort or money – to implement tactical strategies, not the party,” he told Al Jazeera.
Al Jazeera spoke to three Chinese Indonesians who are running for the national parliament.
Fuidy Luckman, PKB
Fuidy Luckman is a candidate of the Muslim-based National Awakening Party (PKB) that supports Anies Baswedan and Muhaimin Iskandar for president and vice president, because Muhaimin is its current chairperson.
One of the founding figures of PKB is the former president of Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid, known as Gus Dur, who lifted the ban on public celebrations of the Lunar New Year while in office in 2000.
Originally from Singkawang in Indonesia’s West Kalimantan province, 61-year-old Fuidy moved to Jakarta for university in 1983 and has lived there ever since.
He has campaigned in some of the poorest parts of the sprawling capital, meeting with residents and also posting videos on TikTok and Instagram.
Fuidy, who owns a wood industry company in Jakarta, urged Chinese Indonesians to go out and vote and participate in Indonesia’s “festival of democracy.”
“We ethnic Chinese should not feel allergic to politics because we live in Indonesia,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Don’t ask to be recognized as Indonesians if we reject the [democratic] processes.”
If elected, Fuidy wants to pursue programs related to “justice” and “equality” — focusing on more affordable education and health care.
Mery Sutedjo, Labor Party
Mery Sutedjo joined the Partai Buruh (Labor Party), whose founders included various national trade union confederations in Indonesia.
The party is led by labor activist Said Iqbal and does not officially support any presidential candidate.
Mery, who runs a housing construction company, said he found the Partai Buruh to be the right platform to push for better social welfare and law enforcement for the poor. workers in Indonesia, including blue-collar and white-collar workers.
Born in Medan in Indonesia’s North Sumatra province, the 54-year-old moved to Jakarta more than 30 years ago for university and hopes to win one of the capital’s seats in the national parliament.
As part of her campaign strategy, Mery gives out her business cards to people she meets and introduces herself. He also asked his family, friends and business contacts for their support.
“I hope there is a chance and possibility for people like me – for an ordinary Chinese minority woman with no political experience and background to run for office,” she told Al Jazeera .
Redi Nusantara, Perindo
A Perindo Party candidate, Redi Nusantara is running in Indonesia’s Central Java province.
Perindo supported the presidential pair of Ganjar Pranowo and Mahfud MD. It supported outgoing President Joko Widodo when the leader won his second term in 2019.
The 55-year-old, who owns a factory that makes metal racks for cabling, wants to attract more foreign investments to Indonesia and create a tax regime that encourages manufacturers of using local products rather than imported components that come into the country through special economic zones. .
From the provincial capital Semarang, Redi is targeting the country’s ethnic Chinese and business communities, as well as first-time voters. He also hopes to change the minds of those who plan to abstain from voting.
Redi has also appeared on video podcasts, talking about entrepreneurship.
He urged Chinese Indonesians – especially the younger generation – to enter national politics and “fix it from within”.
“For all of us ethnic Chinese, especially the youth, we need to understand Indonesian politics,” Redi told Al Jazeera.
“Because if we, the Chinese community, do not understand the parliament, we will always be a cash cow in the Indonesian economy,” he said, hoping that more political participation would help change the lingering stereotype that ethnic Chinese only care about doing business.