JAKARTA: The Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI) is the small party making a big noise at the country’s elections this coming Wednesday, taking the political discourse into areas generally seen as off-limits by the more established players.
High on its agenda are issues with an ethnic or religious dimension as well as a desire to deal with corruption.
In the process, it has controversially set its sights on the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and the Functional Groups (Golkar) party - both part of a grand coalition seeking President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s re-election, which the PSI is also part of.
PSI chairperson Grace Natalie Louisa acknowledged that criticising fellow coalition members has caused “awkwardness”, but the former TV news anchor is unapologetic.
“From the start we have talked about this,” the 36-year-old told CNA in a recent interview. “Whether or not PSI is in a coalition, we will speak about this.”
Grace set up PSI, often dubbed the “millennials party”, in 2014 as an alternative to the existing nationalist parties, hoping to tap into some young voters’ contempt for the entrenched money politics and divisive identity strategies of parts of the ruling elite.
READ: Standing up to be counted - the millennial election candidates looking to shake up Indonesian politics
“All parties claim that they are anti-corruption,” said Grace. “But all of them have their cadres sent to the KPK (Corruption Eradication Commission).”
The General Elections Commission (KPU) in February released a list of 81 legislative candidates with prior corruption conviction; 10 were from Golkar and two from PDI-P.
“What does this tell you about their anti-corruption commitment?” she asked.
To try to win the election, it is not uncommon for candidates to hand out cash or gifts to residents in exchange for votes, leading to allegations of rampant corruption in the House of Representatives (DPR) as successful candidates look to recoup such expenses, and more, once elected.
Earlier this month, the KPK seized six storage chests from a Golkar lawmaker who is seeking re-election. The chests contained 400,000 envelopes each believed to contain 20,000 rupiah - a total of 8 billion rupiah, or more than US$566,000.
READ: Indonesia 'money politics' greases election machine
To engage potential voters, the PSI has looked to circumvent traditional communication methods, such as newspapers, TV or direct campaigning. Instead, their focus is social media.
“We use social media because it is cheaper and it attracts rational voters,” said Grace. “They vote not because of money, not because you give them rice, oil, sugar or coffee; but those who think that you can fight for their aspirations.”
The party also relies on crowdfunding and donations to run operations across the vast Indonesian archipelago, and it posts monthly donation reports on its website. To keep costs down, it works from members’ houses and uses donated vehicles.
“This way, no one person can claim that they own the party. Everyone is contributing something,” said Grace. “No other party is offering what we are in terms of transparency.”
PSI has earned the praise of Jokowi himself. At the party’s fourth anniversary celebration last November, he called PSI a “unicorn” in Indonesian politics - in reference to tech startups that have disrupted the markets through innovative solutions.
“PSI’s innovative ideas and actions are extraordinary," he said. “It is a party built by creative young people who are striving towards greater accountability.”
But can the PSI make meaningful headway in the election with its “innovative” approach? Various polls have placed its share of votes at around 1 per cent to 2 per cent, below the threshold of 4 per cent for getting seats in the DPR, despite having one of the highest social media engagement levels among all parties.
Yet the party remains optimistic, noting the margin of error and the number of undecided voters shown in the surveys.
Said Grace: “It is a lot more difficult to approach voters through social media, but once they are convinced they will not be easily distracted by money politics.”
Winning support is also particularly challenging for Grace, an ethnic-Chinese Christian, who has been speaking up against growing ethnic and religious intolerance in the Muslim-majority country.
"We have an urgent problem of intolerance, particularly of law enforcers in the regions who turn a blind eye to cases of intolerance and politicians who pass discriminatory syariah bylaws (perda syariah),” she said.
Politicians in secular parties - in particular PDI-P and Golkar - are the ones who have drafted and passed most syariah bylaws, she noted.
READ: Indonesia's 'millennials party' draws fire for comments on sharia bylaws
PDI-P and Golkar currently have the most seats in the DPR and dominate many Regional Houses of Representatives (DPRD). The DPRD, together with the regional administration, can enact bylaws that must not contradict with national laws and regulations which are officially secular.
The motive for supporting syariah bylaws? Dr Michael Buehler, a senior lecturer at the University of London’s School of Oriental and Asian Studies whose work is often cited by Grace, says it gives “opportunist Islamisers” an edge over other candidates.
“Accommodating the agenda of Islamist movements also rendered state elites with cultural capital,” he said in a 2016 book titled The Politics Of Shari’a Law. “To drum up (their Islamist) reputation, politicians not only authorised syariah regulations but often pursued a broader ‘Islamisation’ agenda that is high in symbolism.”
Grace warned that using religion as a political tool risks breaking the nation apart.
“Uniformisation through religion-based rules threatens the diversity of our people,” she said. “In the long run, it will breed intolerance: The minorities have to give in and follow the majority’s way of life.”
Eva Kusuma Sundari, a PDI-P lawmaker and spokesperson for the Jokowi coalition, said that her party supports religion-based bylaws with “universal” aspirations, such as in fighting poverty and ignorance.
“But we do not agree with exclusive bylaws that are discriminatory, for example, bylaws that restrict women from being out of the house at night and bylaws that create religion-based segregation,” the Jakarta Post reported her saying.
The report also quoted Golkar lawmaker Firman Soebagyo saying that “regional bylaws should not contradict existing laws and the constitutions”, but rather “safeguard our national unity and diversity”.
But PSI is of the view that nationalist parties like PDI-P and Golkar have not walked the talk when it comes to protecting diversity - not least in the case of Meliana, a 44-year-old ethnic Chinese Buddhist resident of Medan who in 2016 complained that her neighbourhood mosque was too loud.
READ: Indonesian loses blasphemy appeal over mosque loudspeaker complaint
As word of her remarks spread, a mob of people burned down several Buddhist temples, after first attempting to set Meliana’s house on fire. The perpetrators received sentences of between one and four months, but Meliana received a jail sentence of 18 months for blasphemy.
Meliana appealed her prison sentence but was rejected in a Mar 27 ruling, the court’s website showed last Monday. A PSI spokesperson said it was disappointed that the court’s decision did not sufficiently weigh the defendant’s arguments as well as input from the public and the National Commission for Women.
PLOY TO "CANNIBALISE" VOTES?
At a campaign in Meliana’s hometown Medan last month, Grace lamented PDI-P and Golkar’s inaction over Meliana’s case.
“Why was I the only party chairperson who has visited Meliana in prison?” she said.
In jest, she also asked for “forgiveness” from the nationalist parties, saying that had they done their “homework”, PSI would not need to exist.
Golkar and PDI-P politicians have in turn criticised PSI for “causing disunity” with such statements and risking Jokowi’s re-election bid.
“Why don’t they attack the rival coalition?” Golkar’s deputy secretary-general Dave Laksono was quoted by news website Kumparan as saying. “There are many votes they can garner from outside our coalition.”
Said PDI-P vice-chairperson Hendrawan Supratikno as quoted by news website Tempo: “They are trying to nod into PDI-P’s large segment of voters. But they are still perceived as an elitist party, upper-class nationalists and youngsters with urban lifestyle and all its attributes.”
Political analyst Rico Marbun, echoed this view, saying that PSI is trying to “cannibalise” the support bases of fellow coalition members in a last-ditch effort to win the election, news website Detik reported.
Other analysts also said that PSI ultimately has itself to blame for its poor performance on the polls.
"PSI is taking on visions and missions that may not be liked by the broader public,” said political analyst Rully Akbar, as quoted by local media.
On the contrary, Grace said, her “emotional” experiences campaigning at the grassroots have helped her understand the ground.
“It has helped me understand the state of democracy in this country and the people - the issues that are relevant to them,” she said. “Meeting the people at the grassroots gives me a clear picture of where the Indonesian people are right now.”
Her stance against syariah bylaws has led Grace to be questioned by the police after being reported for religious blasphemy by a rival Islamist politician last November.
It was deja vu for observers who had seen another Chinese Christian - the former governor of Jakarta - being put to jail for two years for insulting Islam, after the radical Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) agitated against him for months.
But asked if she feels threatened by people who might have found her remarks offensive, Grace laughed it off, saying: “I go around with my team - they are not armed bodyguards, but we take care of each other.”