Indonesia’s ‘Elvis’ leads celebrity charge at polls

Indonesian political analysts say candidates won't standing for office because of corruption but singer Rhoma Irama, who likes to don an Elvis costume, insists his bid is serious

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 April, 2014, 2:38pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 April, 2014, 5:55pm

A white jumpsuit stretched over his bulging belly, an ageing crooner known as Indonesia’s Elvis launches into song ahead of Wednesday’s elections, one of a parade of celebrities standing as candidates or acting as cheerleaders.

Rhoma Irama, who was seeking support for his own presidential bid and for the Islamic party that backs him, is part of a star-studded push for votes in the legislative polls, which set the stage for the presidential elections in July.

The tactic seems to be working among some supporters; “Bro Rhoma I love you, bro Rhoma for Indonesian president,” screamed one woman wearing a purple Muslim headscarf at his Jakarta concert as she danced vigorously.

But while the presence of celebrities adds colour to the elections, analysts say the trend highlights the woeful state of political life in Indonesia 16 years after dictator Suharto left power.

“Activists from civil society with the capacity to lead are not interested in taking part in the elections.”
Political analyst Syamsuddin Haris

Parliament is regarded as one of the country’s most corrupt institutions, with several lawmakers having been jailed for graft in recent years and pictures of MPs asleep in session regularly splashed across the press.

Political observers say celebrities are filling a void left by more serious contenders who are disillusioned with the system.

“Activists from civil society with the capacity to lead are not interested in taking part in the elections,” said Syamsuddin Haris, a political analyst from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences.

“They feel the political culture is still very poor and they will not be able to change the system even if they are voted in.”

The growing celebrity trend at this year’s parliamentary elections has been the so-called “caleg cantik” – literally “the beautiful legislative candidate”.

A former Miss Indonesia beauty pageant finalist, Soraya Hapsari, swimsuit model Destiara Talita, and singer Camel Petir are all hoping their high profile and good looks can propel them to office.

Despite concerns over the celebrity trend, there is little doubt that a figure well-loved by the public can boost a party’s popularity.

At Irama’s recent outdoor gig, the hundreds of fans attending seemed overwhelmed as the man known as the king of “dangdut”, a popular type of Indonesian music, sang “the rich get richer, the poor get poorer”.

While the presidency is probably out of the devout Muslim star’s reach, polls indicate the party backing him, the Islamic-based National Awakening Party (PKB), will increase its share of the vote to 7 or 8 per cent.

That would be a good result and buck the trend of falling support for Islamic parties in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, as voters move away from picking parties based solely on religious grounds.

Observers also point to other factors in the PKB’s success, however. It received a boost when the head of fast-growing airline Lion Air, Rusdi Kirana, joined the party and got involved in planning and bankrolling its campaign.

“My songs all these 40 years contain political messages about corruption, human rights.”
Rhoma Irama

While some celebrities will make it into parliament, Irama is unlikely even to be able to run at the presidential polls, observers say, as his party won’t win the required support at the legislative elections to put forward a candidate.

Nevertheless, the colourful singer who has been widely mocked for seeking the presidency, in particular for a campaign poster which depicts him wearing a turban while riding a white horse – insists he can win.

“People underestimate me because they don’t know who Rhoma really is,” he said during a recent interview at his Jakarta house.

“They think I know nothing about politics ... but my songs all these 40 years contain political messages about corruption, human rights.”