Ceremonial confusion: personality, politics and parties in Indonesia’s fiefdoms

It’s party season here in Weda, a newly-bustling town on the east coast of Halmahera island. There are parties and Parties, and the confusion of the two are a pretty good illustration of life in Indonesia’s districts, which are often run very much as personal fiefdoms of the Bupati, or regent.

The Bupati is the elected head of the local government. He (it usually is a he) runs an executive that is supposedly held to account by the local parliament, the DPRD. But the Bupati is usually also the local head of the strongest political Party, which means he controls the fortunes of many parliamentarians — that slightly cramps their syle in holding him to account, then. He’s also often the largest client for one of Indonesia’s most important local industries, the printers of giant banners. The Bupati planting trees, the Bupati eating local staple foods, the Bupati shaking hands with the President. And of course, the Bupati in the colours of his political Party.

Here in Halamahera Tenggah, that colour is red. The Bupati, now entering the fifth and final year of his first term, belongs to PDIP, the Party headed by former President Megawati Soekarnoputri. I happen to arrive on Sunday, PDIP’s birthday. The town is painted red, quite literally. And giant banners hang from every lamppost, flags flutter high above the mosque, the funfair, the marketplace, even the office of the rival Democrat Party. And by early afternoon, virtually all of Weda’s residents are also wearing red – mostly polo shirts declaring their fervent support for Al Yasin Ali, aka Aba Acim. They flood onto the streets, following a (surprisingly good) marching band twirling the red flags of the PDIP, ahead of a motorcade of honking, screeching, gyrating citizens. They shout for the re-election of the man who brought the seat of local government to this, his home town, four years ago. With his rule came paved roads, better transport to other areas of the province, better phone coverage, and some very flash new government buildings, all kept afloat on a sea of cash the like of which this former backwater has never seen. As they go past his house the local citizenry fight to shake his hand; he grins and grips, dispensing general bonhomie. Elsewhere in the district he is said to give out minimg contracts illegally, to violate the zoning regulations made by his own administration and to turn a blind eye to blatantly illegal logging. But let’s not ruin the mood.

This Party party is squeezed between three others. On Friday and Saturday, the Bupati spent “billions” of rupiah (according to the local papers) hosting some 7,000 guests at the back-to-back weddings of two of his daughters. I missed those parties, but what I saw of the left-overs alone would keep some of the islands I’ve visited fed for several weeks. Around the huge tented area where the ceremonies took place are more giant banners — very much larger than life sized photos of the happy couples, but also photos of the Bupati and his wife on holiday, the Bupati in his uniform of office, the Bupati with a list of the achievements of his first four years in office. All, needless to say, topped with huge PDIP Party banners hoisted in preparation for Sunday’s Party party. The fact that the wedding ceremonies revived some of the lost customs of the district surely justified subsidising them with public funds.

Monday, quite by chance (??), was the fourth birthday of the move of the local government to Weda. So another whole round of ceremonies, presided over by the Bupati. During which, along with traditional dances, a reading of Pancasila (the five principles upon which the Indonesian state is supposed to be based), a short history of the district and more marching bands, we heard at least four separate demands that we support the Bupati for a further 5 year term in elections due mid-year. Each in the local language, Indonesian and (GoogleTranslate) English (about which they might have learned their lesson from the recent Malaysia experience). But wait, this is a state occasion, funded out of the public purse, not a political rally. Or is it?

In this part of Indonesia, small Sultanates for centuries enjoyed large spheres of influence. The present system is an advance in that it allows people to choose their Sultans. But patterns of patronage, the confusion of government, Party and private interests and the very likely confusion of government, Party and private funds show that personal fiefdoms still dominate government in Indonesia.