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Are Chinese-Indonesian voters key to Prabowo’s election win?

According to a 2010 census, there are around three million ChineseIndonesians in the country. [Aisyah Llewellyn/Al Jazeera] Medan, Indonesia – In February, presidential hopeful Prabowo Subianto made his first visit to Medan, the provincial capital of North Sumatra and home to one of Indonesia’s largest populations of ethnic Chinese.

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Thousands turned out to hear what the former general had to say. While many other Indonesians might be focussed on issues of identity, the ethnic Chinese minority has more pragmatic concerns.

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“People are often swayed by religious affiliations or racial ties, but that’s less the case with ChineseIndonesian voters,” said Endar Hadi Purwanto, who owns a traditional Chinese tea shop in Medan.

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“We’re more interested in the goals of the candidates and whether they are really going to work in the best interests of the people.”

According to a 2010 census, there are around three million ChineseIndonesians in the country. Around six percent of them are in North Sumatra. In Medan, these voters make up 10 percent of the population after the Batak and Javanese.

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But the ethnic Chinese community has long faced discrimination in the country. 

190408080355562 In the 1960s, anti-communist purges that swept the archipelago as Suharto wrested power from founding president Sukarno, an estimated 500,000 people died, including thousands of ChineseIndonesians

As Suharto consolidated his position as president, Chinese language schools were banned, as was the celebration of traditional Chinese holidays such as the Lunar New Year. Many ethnic Chinese changed their names to make them sound more Indonesian

It became a struggle for Chinese to find work in the ranks of the civil service or politics due to racial discrimination. As a result, many became business owners in order to carve out their own livelihoods in Indonesia.

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Sitting in his Ho Teh Tiam tea shop, Endar said the experience of the past continues to effect the decisions Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese make today

“We had to create our own opportunities and our own businesses,” said Endar

Indonesia election: Campaigning ends before Wednesday polling

“[So] infrastructure and growth are big issues for ChineseIndonesians. We’re interested in candidates who care about efficiency and make things easier for business owners.”

‘Anti-Chinese image’ Brilian Moktar is a member of the Regional House of People’s Representatives (DPRD) for North Sumatra and one of the few ChineseIndonesians to have broken into politics in the region

He agreed that ChineseIndonesian voters were an important voice in North Sumatra, telling Al Jazeera that “we’re one of the largest groups in the province, ahead of say Malay or Minangkabau voters, so our votes certainly count”

But Moktar also explained that courting this community was not a guarantee to success

Prabowo’s been rejected three times [in previous elections] by the majority of Indonesian voters. And ChineseIndonesian voters are strongly influenced by facts, not identity politics. We vote based on logic,” he said

For many ChineseIndonesian voters, Prabowo’s strong nationalistic stance is also likely to deter them from voting for him. 

190409075921126 Prabowo was accused of instigating anti-Chinese riots in 1998 when Suharto was forced from power. They originated in Medan and spread to other parts of the country, leaving more than 1,000 people dead

Prabowo  was discharged from the military in August 1998 but has  always denied stirring up racial unrest in the country

Prabowo is infamous for his anti-Chinese image,” said Ericssen, an independent political analyst who specialises in Indonesian electoral politics

Ericssen, who is originally from North Sumatra, added that there were other, more pragmatic reasons why Prabowo may want to reach out to this community

“Unlike in 2014, when his campaign had strong financial power, this year’s it has been financially challenging for Prabowo,” said Ericssen

“He launched public fundraising including gala dinners with the ChineseIndonesian community. Prabowo needs their money and ChineseIndonesians who are tired of Jokowi’s government will see Prabowo as an alternative.”

‘Money machine’ Yohanes Sulaiman, a political analyst and lecturer at Universitas Jenderal Achmad Yani, agrees

“As a voting bloc it seems both sides don’t care except seeing ChineseIndonesians as a money machine,” said Sulaiman

“Think about it. If they cared about [minority groups like] christians and ChineseIndonesians, there’s no way they would have allowed cases like Meiliana’s to happen”

Meiliana, a ChineseIndonesian Buddhist from Tanjung Balai in North Sumatra, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for blasphemy in August 2018

She was blamed of complaining about the volume of the speakers at her local mosque

Meiliana’s conviction was upheld last week by Indonesia’s highest court, but she told Al Jazeera that she rejected the allegations against her

“Race and religion shouldn’t be used to create divisions between us,” Meiliana said from prison

The case inflamed ethnic tensions in North Sumatra after rioters set fire to Buddhist temples in Tanjung Balai, and politicians, including incumbent president Joko Widodo, sought to distance themselves from the case claiming that they could not intervene in the legal process

In travelling to Medan, Prabowo campaign spokesman, Dahnil Anzar Simanjuntak said the team was recognising the importance of North Sumatra to the political landscape

Nationally, opinion polls suggest Widodo remains in the lead as election day nears, and many ChineseIndonesian voters appear unconvinced by Prabowo’s attempt to win their votes this time around

“In the end, the relationship between Prabowo and ChineseIndonesian voters is not really about their vote. It is about political branding, political impression and political financing,” said Ericssen

SOURCE: Al Jazeera News

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