Electoral workers examine a ballot as they count votes at a polling station during the parliamentary elections in Jakarta, Indonesia earlier this month. Pic: AP.

Legislative election hopefuls face debt, depression as they await official results of hotly contested polls, writes Robert Yates

Following recent legislative elections, most of Indonesia’s political attention is now turned towards the coming months and the presidential vote taking place in July. However, for the many candidates who failed to secure seats on April 9, post-election life can present an even greater challenge than the pre-election campaigns, with some individuals finding themselves in near-financial ruin and beset by debilitating stress.

The period has become notorious in Indonesia for its array of mental health issues linked to political failure. Following the 2009 elections, thousands of unsuccessful candidates sought professional treatment for stress-related illnesses, and thousands more are thought to have sought help from religious healers and traditional therapists.

This year, more than 235,000 candidates stood for less than 20,000 positions. Not only are these positions fiercely contended numerically, but candidates are often forced to incur huge debts in order to fund their campaigns. Lack of financial aid from political parties means it is common for election hopefuls to sell property, land and vehicles, as well as to rely on vast loans, just to stand a chance at the polls.

AFP report of one candidate, Sofyan, having raised more than 300 million rupiah ($26,000) to run for a local parliament seat in Cirebon district, West Java. As well as advertising materials, this money was used for cash hand-outs to potential voters, a support-buying practice that is illegal yet common throughout the country. Although official results are not released until May, preliminary statistics suggest he is on course to win his seat for the Democratic Party of current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Yet, even with his predicted success, Sofyan still claims that the debts he owes and the possibility of failure have sent him into a period of severe depression.

“I don’t know what to do if I lose,” he said.

For others, disappointment and despair arrived early, with quick-counts on Election Day revealing their investments and efforts had yielded insufficient votes. Stolen ballot boxes are often linked with candidates realising they have lost before polling day is out. Last week, The Jakarta Globe reported an array of public disorder incidents involving election hopefuls faced with imminent failure.

A legislative candidate from Sampang, East Java, one Muhammad Taufiq, stormed two polling stations and attempted to take ballot boxes by force with the help of a friend before being apprehended by officials. A candidate from the People’s Conscience Party (Hanura) in Nagekeo, East Nusa Tenggara, jeopardised the water supply to a local village by vandalising water pipes after he failed to win a seat.

Other failed candidates have been reported trying to take back donations they bestowed on local communities prior to the elections. Miftahul Huda, also from Hanura, seized bricks, cement and sand that he had given to a local mosque. Others have demanded individual members of the public to give back hand-outs and private gifts.

For many, the financial risks of running for a seat are part of a gamble that, if successful, can lead to a highly lucrative political term. The synonymous nature of politics and money in Indonesia attracts candidates as much as it disillusions the electorate. However, it is clear that the risks involved can prove too much for some. Eka Viora, the Indonesian health ministry’s director for mental health, told AFP that the election could be a ‘disaster’ for hopefuls who fail to gain a seat.

“They lose not only their assets and jobs but also their dignity.”

The government is clearly aware of the issue. Poempida Hidayatulloh, a member of the House of Representatives Commission, draws attention to Health Law No. 36 of 2009, declaring that the state will pay for the medical expenses of candidates suffering from emotional distress. However, given the vast number of individuals that were inevitably fated to lose in these elections, one wonders whether preventative rather than corrective measures should be considered in the future.