Jakarta, Indonesia — Indonesia will see nearly 10,000 people, including some from the country’s ethnic Chinese minority, compete in Wednesday’s general election to become one of 580 lawmakers in the national parliament.
According to the Indonesian General Election Commission (KPU), there are 9,917 candidates representing 18 political parties in 38 provinces. The candidates include Indonesians of Chinese descent, who made up about 2.8 million of Indonesia’s then-237 million people, according to the 2010 national census. The most recent 2020 census did not list its ethnic groups.
For Indonesian Chinese, democracy has given them previously restricted political rights.
For more than 30 years under the regime of Soeharto, who resigned following massive protests in 1998, Chinese Indonesians were not allowed to publicly celebrate the Lunar New Year and assimilation policies were introduced to make them more “Indonesian”, thus transforming them into second-class citizens. Many have turned to business and the private sector to earn a living after being limited in government roles.
“Politics is not for everyone,” said Taufiq Tanasaldy, a lecturer in Indonesian and Asian studies at the University of Tasmania. “Especially for the Chinese who endured decades of discriminatory policies under the Soeharto regime. »
But Taufiq said interest had “increased after Soeharto due to political reforms and policies aimed at eradicating discriminatory practices”, referring to equal opportunities for ethnic Chinese to run for office and to vote for their favorite candidates.
“The elections or appointments of several Chinese figures to national and regional politics have sparked this growing interest. The visibility of their initial ‘success’ has been important for the Chinese community,” he told Al Jazeera.
Prominent Chinese who have entered politics include former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok. He was later jailed for blasphemy following comments made during the election campaign and has adopted a lower profile since his release.
“Representation has remained stable, and it has certainly not gotten worse,” Taufiq said.
But for many Chinese-Indonesian voters, Taufiq said, “parties with nationalist agendas are more attractive than those that uphold sectarian values… especially at the national level.”
With more than 270 million people, Indonesia has nearly 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 Catholic Indonesians.
Despite representation, the current system of proportional representation could disadvantage some candidates who must now campaign directly to obtain seats.
R. Siti Zuhro, research professor of political science at the Indonesian National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN), says the open list has made it “very difficult to compete” for some candidates compared to the previous system where votes went to the party rather than the party. individual candidates.
“It’s more up to the legislative candidate (to do the work) – whether it’s their effort or their money – to implement tactical strategies, not the party,” she told Al Jazeera.
Al Jazeera spoke to three Chinese Indonesians running for national parliament.
Fuidy Luckman, PKB
Fuidy Luckman is a candidate for the Muslim-based National Awakening Party (PKB), which supports Anies Baswedan and Muhaimin Iskandar for president and vice president, with Muhaimin as its current president.
One of the founding figures of the PKB was the late Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, better known as Gus Dur, who lifted the ban on public Lunar New Year celebrations while in power in 2000.
Originally from Singkawang in Indonesia’s West Kalimantan province, Fuidy, 61, moved to Jakarta to study at university in 1983 and has lived there ever since.
He campaigned in some of the sprawling capital’s poorest neighborhoods, meeting with residents and also posting videos on TikTok and Instagram.
Fuidy, a business owner in the timber industry in Jakarta, urged Chinese Indonesians to come out and vote and participate in Indonesia’s “democracy festival.”
“We ethnic Chinese don’t need to feel allergic to politics because we live in Indonesia,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Don’t ask to be recognized as Indonesians while we put aside (democratic) processes. »
If elected, Fuidy wants to pursue programs related to “justice” and “equality” – focusing on more affordable education and health care.
Mery Sutedjo, Partai Buruh
Mery Sutedjo joined the Partai Buruh (Labor Party), whose founders include various Indonesian national trade union confederations.
The party is led by union activist Said Iqbal and has not officially endorsed any presidential candidate.
Mery, who runs a housing construction company, says she found Partai Buruh to be the right platform to push for better social protection and law enforcement for Indonesia’s working class, 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 to pursue his university education and hopes to win one of the capital’s seats in the national parliament.
As part of her campaign strategy, Mery hands out her business cards to people she meets and introduces herself. She also sought support from family, friends and professional contacts.
“I hope there is an opportunity and a possibility for people like me – for an ordinary Chinese minority, without experience or political background, to run for office,” she told Al Jazeera.
Redi Nusantara, Perindo
Candidate for the Perindo party, Redi Nusantara is running in the Indonesian province of Central Java.
Perindo supports the presidential duo Ganjar Pranowo and Mahfud MD. He supported incumbent President Joko Widodo when he won his second term in 2019.
The 55-year-old, owner of a factory making metal brackets for cabling, wants to attract more foreign investment to Indonesia and develop a tax regime that encourages manufacturers to use domestic products rather than imported components that arrive in the country via special economic zones. .
Originating in Semarang, the provincial capital, Redi targets the country’s ethnic Chinese and business communities, as well as new voters. He also hopes to change the minds of those who might consider abstaining from voting.
Redi has also appeared on video podcasts, speaking about entrepreneurship.
He encourages Indonesian Chinese – especially the younger generation – to engage in national politics and “solve the problem from within”.
“For all of us of Chinese origin, especially young people, we need to understand Indonesian politics,” Redi told Al Jazeera.
“Because if we, the Chinese community, do not understand Parliament, we will always be the cash cow of Indonesia’s economy,” he said, hoping that increased political participation will help change the persistent stereotype that ethnic Chinese only care about business.