PACITAN, Indonesia — In Indonesia, a singing politician is hardly a novelty.
Candidates belting out karaoke are a common sight and even the dour president, ex-general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has a string of albums under his belt.
But the cleavage-out, hip-thrusting style of model/actress/singer Julia Perez hardly fits the usual script. The 29-year-old, popularly known as Jupe (pronounced: joo-pay), is causing controversy in Indonesia by running for local government in President Yudhoyono’s home district in Pacitan, in eastern Java.
Final candidates for the position of district head, or bupati, are yet to be decided and the election will not be until December. But Jupe’s candidacy doesn’t go down well with many conservatives who like to see Muslim-majority Indonesia as a moral nation. This is, after all, the woman whose last album, Kamasutra, came with free condoms and whose biggest hit, Belah Duren (Splitting-open the Durian), is laden with graphic innuendo:
More importantly, her candidacy has become the latest focal point for fretting over the spread of celebrities in Indonesian politics — a symptom, critics say, of a system where venal politicians and policy-free parties have left democracy looking hollow just over a decade after the 1998 fall of dictator Suharto.
Reached by a narrow ribbon of road through lush, forest-covered limestone hills, Pacitan itself is a rustic, slow-paced place. Most people live off farming or fishing. The main tourist draws are some caves and a beautiful, windswept and flotsam-strewn beach that is unsafe to swim.
The day I turned up was meant to be a big appearance by Jupe, but at the last minute, she was a no-show. Sutikno, the local head of the Hanura party of ex-general Wiranto (who has been indicted, but never tried over crimes against humanity in East Timor), is open about his disappointment. He speaks darkly of Jupe receiving “extraordinary pressure” from unnamed individuals not to come.
Still, Sutikno is upbeat about Jupe. The incumbent from Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party, who was elected in Indonesia’s first local elections in 2005, is a failure, he says. A coalition of nine parties, including some Islamic parties, is wooing Jupe to challenge the Democrats.
“The law doesn’t say sexy artists can’t be candidates,” Sutikno says, using the Indonesian catch-all term for female starlets.
“Jupe came and I tested her. She was dressed like this,” he says, smoking a clove cigarette and gesturing the outline of a tank top and hotpants. “I was happy. If she came wearing a headscarf I wouldn’t have been pleased, she would’ve been faking it.”
Sutikno says he thinks Jupe — who speaks Indonesian, English, French and Dutch — will be able to draw in foreign investment. And he thinks local voters will forgive her for showing a little flesh if she can guarantee she won’t put her hand in the public purse.
“If I said lacking in morals is identical with clothing, I’d be wrong. Corruption is immoral and Jupe has never been corrupt,” Sutikno says.
Another local party boss, Nur Sigit Effendi, who gives his interview flanked by pseudo-paramilitary Hanura party guards, says largely the same thing.
When I finally catch up with Jupe herself at a Starbucks on the outskirts of Jakarta she freely admits she initially had “zero” capacity to be a politician. But she says she’s convinced investment in infrastructure will help local farmers and fisherman, and eventually transform Pacitan into a tourist haven like Bali or Monaco.
If people want to talk about public morality, they should talk about Indonesia’s entrenched graft, she says. “You can’t eat, not because I’m using a bikini. You can’t eat or you can’t go to school or you can’t do anything if someone steals money from you.”
“At least with an actress candidate, they know the person. ‘Ah, this is Julia Perez, we know she’s only a sexy image blah blah blah, but we know that she will never be corrupt,” she says.
Still, Jupe’s candidacy has been broadly criticized and lampooned in the media. Some party bigwigs in Jakarta have flat-out opposed her candidacy. The home minister, Gamawan Fauzi, earlier in the year floated the idea of imposing minimum experience in public service as a condition for hopefuls for public office. The move has widely been interpreted as a response to Jupe’s candidacy.
Political analyst Mohammad Qodari says Indonesia’s bewildering array of dozens of parties coalesce and compete without coherent policies, alliances or ideologies. In the confusion, personality politics has arisen and celebrities have become choice recruits to tempt an electorate that can often seem disillusioned.
But Qodari says Indonesian voters are smarter than politicians think, and tend to reward or punish officials based on past performance.
“The main motivation is they [political parties] want to win and they have this main assumption, sweeping assumption, that all celebrities are popular and all celebrities have high electability and high probability to win, which is not the case,” he says.
In Pacitan itself locals seem ready, if sometimes grudgingly, to give Jupe a chance. Islam is the overwhelming religion here, but it is mixed with elements of Hinduism and animism.
Alexander, a fisherman at the local port, says local sailors would have few objections to a sexy woman as their representative.
“But it’s got to be the right way. If she’s sexy at the right time, that’s OK. But if we meet her as an official, if she’s carrying out her duties, she has to value her position,” he says. “Sexy is nothing. What’s important is don’t just promise, promise, promise.”
Even at one of the town’s main mosque, the local prayer leader, Tumadi, is conciliatory.
“As a good Indonesian citizen, I appreciate and respect democracy. Whoever wants to become a candidate in this country can do it so long as they fulfil the conditions,” he says.
But, he says, choosing his words carefully, under Islam it is always preferable that men, rather than women, should lead.