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Pre-election nonchalance, Bali

July 2, 2009

Walking down Poppies Gang, or any of the other gangs (alleyway) in Kuta, you could be forgiven for thinking you were somewhere on Australia’s Gold coast. Holidaymakers with occa accents saunter past in brightly painted shorts and sundresses, blond kids in tow, or in gaggles of girl groups, in swaggers of boy groups or in the slower, lopsided gait of overweight pensioners who wear their overgrown noses under broad-brimmed sunhats. But reach Kuta’s famous beach and the black volcanic sand, just visible beneath the thousands of deckchairs, is a reminder that this is not Australia’s east coast. The crowded gangs themselves offer plenty of other subtle identifiers. Squeezing past bumper to bumper cars, pedestrians must pick their way around beautifully presented offerings on the ground outside every shop – flowers and edibles presented in small handplaited palm baskets stand as a reminder that Bali is a small Hindu outpost in the world’s largest Muslim country.

Australians, which make up the bulk of Bali’s visiters, have their school holidays now, as do Indonesians. It’s peak season here and it feels it. Kuta is most popular tourist destination in the country at the most popular time of year – we went from door to door hunting a free room to stay.

Tourism is the mainstay of Bali’s economy, and the reason that separatist movements on the island have died down: the dearth of tourist dollar after the Bali bombings woke everyone up to how dependent the Balinese are on Java. But it’s an uneasy alliance. Poverty is very real here – there have been 39 suicides in Bali so far this year, mainly of impoverished farmers.

Poverty is a key issue in the country’s second-ever presidential election next week. On 8 July the world’s third largest democracy country goes to the polls to decide whether to keep the incumbent Susilo Yudhoyono, vote in his deputy, Kalla, or revert to former President Megwati. According to pollsters, Yudhoyono (an Islamist) is almost certain to remain President. He is more popular than Megawati, being seen as stronger – as one stall-owner puts it: “Under her, there were lots of terrorist bombings and we lost two of our island territories to Malaysia.” But he is not generally popular in Bali, where people think of him as being too Muslim – people fear a stricter regime that will frighten tourists – and worry that his policies are driven too much by Javan and Sumatran concerns.

Others I spoke to want to see Megawati back, saying she was less corrupt, although my taxi driver claims the opposite, saying that Yudhoyono is so straight that he’s even imprisoned his own family for corruption.

The sad truth is that Indonesia is so mired in corruption that the government would probably collapse without the funds its dodgy deals bring. And while poverty alleviation and the economic crisis is playing high on the agenda of presidential campaigns, little if nothing is mentioned on human rights abuses – a subject that cuts to the heart of this fragmented archipelago. Police brutality is widespread (another Amnesty report outlined the degree of police corruption, torture and extortion of the public only last week), military maneuvres in much of the country are little improved since Soeharto’s days and separatist movements remain strong despite the fragile peace in Aceh. East Timor, Papua feel very far from Jakarta, yet while Papua has the world’s biggest goldmine, Indonesia will continue to grasp it tightly despite all resistance (and often with the shameful assistance of countries such as Australia, which collude with Indonesia’s human rights abuses).

One part of the problem was the policy, of first the Dutch colonialists and then the Indonesian government, of sorting the country’s overpopulation problem by transferring large populations of Javan (often urban poor from Jakarta) to places of ow population density such as Papua and Kalimantan. The result was resentment, culture clash and worse poverty. The migrated slum-dwellers knew nothing of rice farming and often starved or returned poorer.

Indonesia has a population of around 250 million, which is predicted to grow to 470 million by 2060. How the country deals with its growing numbers is of concern to the whole of Southeast Asia, as well as Australia and New Zealand.

Bizarrely, most people I talk to in Kuta are unaware of next week’s election and care little about the outcome. According to a report issued today, 50 million of the population are not registered to vote and it’s now too late to register anyway. Some of these are among the educated Balinese. but as one woman said to me: “It makes no difference which of the three wins – nothing would change for us here. The only thing that effects us is whether the tourists come.”

They are coming for now, but will the scantily clad Australians return if the island becomes more overtly Islamic with Yudhoyono’s re-election? This, I think, is the true reason for his unpopularity with Balinese voters.

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