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Growing apathy may dent voter turnout at Indonesia legislative poll

WHEN Jovan Said first started university in 1998, he risked his life to join thousands of fellow students in South Sumatra to topple the dictator Suharto.

Tomorrow, when 175 million Indonesian voters will have a chance to elect local and central government assemblies across this sprawling archipelago, he says he will stay home.

Corruption scandals and disappointment in the outgoing administration of incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono threaten to keep millions away like 32-year-old Mr Said, who teaches bank executives English and is recently married. Even the emergence of a political rock star such as Jakarta's reformist Governor Joko Widodo as a likely candidate for president in July and is expected to lead his Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) to a thumping victory this week, will do little to rekindle his interest.

"In the end they always compromise their ideals," Mr Said said. "It's better to focus on my family."

A wave of political apathy is sweeping the country just as a new class of lawmakers appears poised to take over. The popularity of Mr Widodo, better known here as "Jokowi", will likely help his PDI-P clinch as many as 45 per cent of seats in the House of Representatives, making it the ruling party for the first time in a decade, according to recent polls from Roy Morgan and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But some specialists reckon that upwards of half of the electorate will stay home on election day, extending sharp declines in the voter participation rate since 2004 when the voter participation rate was 84 per cent. Audacious corruption scandals that reach up to the highest levels of the government have sapped public trust.

The Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) convicted in January the chairman of Mr Yudhoyono's ruling Democratic Party, Anas Urbaningrum, for his role in a multi-million dollar scandal to build a sports stadium in West Java. It also convicted the chairman of the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party, a member of the ruling coalition for a graft scandal centring on kickbacks for doling beef import quotas. Last year, the KPK arrested Akil Mochtar, chief justice of the constitutional court, for accepting bribes to sway the outcome of a disputed mayoral election.

Sensing the frustration, the KPK launched its first public education initiative. Its "Chose Honesty" campaign took to social media and billboards to encourage the electorate to get out and vote, if only to elect a less crooked bunch of lawmakers.

"People don't want to vote, they're tired," said KPK deputy chairman Adnan Praja.

"We're trying to tell them that it's up to them to chose better politicians."

Those scandals will likely cost Mr Yudhoyono's Democrats dearly this year, with some opinion polls saying that they may see their support gutted from about 20 per cent in 2009 when it took the lion's share of the seats in the country's lower house to between 5 per cent and 10 per cent.

Official results of the election are due in early May. Parties or coalitions that gain at least 20 per cent of the seats in the House of Representatives or 25 per cent of the national vote are permitted to nominate candidates for president at the presidential poll on July 9. A run-off is slated for September if no candidate wins at least 50 per cent of the vote.

Opinion polls suggest Mr Widodo is the favourite to take over from Mr Yudhoyono following the inauguration slated for October.

Apart from the corruption, missed opportunities for reform have played a role in the public's apathy towards politics, said Yuli Ismartono, deputy chief editor of Tempo Magazine's English language edition. Ms Ismartono said that after 10 years, Mr Yudhoyono's Democrats could have done more to wean the country off subsidised fuel and put the estimated US$22 billion it spends annually on the benefit to more productive use.

"This is the end of a regime. The people are disappointed," Ms Ismartono said.

"We're looking at the two terms the Democrats had thinking 'that was not what we expected'."