The United Development Party, Indonesia’s oldest Muslim party, rallies in the Papuan highlands. All photos by author.

Koteka [penis gourd]-adorned Lani men in feather head dresses armed with handmade bows run in a circle; teenage Lani girls with painted faces, wearing only grass skirts and bras, wave flags and chant; dreadlocked young men idle in camo shorts, sticks in hand; small groups of older Papuans sit in clusters, singing Christian hymns, while pigs root around in mud on the edge of the field.

It’s just another election rally in support of Indonesia’s oldest Muslim political party, The United Development Party (Partai Persatuan Pembangunan).

Except that we’re in an almost 100% Christian patch of the remote Papua highlands.

It took me two days to get from Jayapura to Bokondini. The town lies in Tolikara, a new district: it was once part of Jayawijaya but was ‘carved off’ as part of the overall pemekaran trend. Pemekaran is sometimes translated as ‘blossoming’, but in Indonesia it signifies the viral creation of new administrative entities: an aftereffect of the post-Suharto decentralisation. Papuan elites have taken to pemekaran with great gusto, creating 30 new districts since 1998 with 33 more in the pipeline. Theoretically the creation of new districts makes government more responsive but it’s also a way to access national subsidies, award jobs, and punish other clans. Populations are faked to increase central government subsidies. Pemekaran isn’t limited to districts: a village of 400 people can split into four in order to quadruple the number of provincial village development grants.

On a road to Bokondini lined with candidate flags and billboards, word comes back via CB radio that a roadblock has gone up just before Binime, in another new pemekaran district, Memberamo Tengah, and a car was burned. We double back to Wamena. The next morning we passed two roadblocks; one waved us through after the driver lied and said I was a priest. The next roadblock constituted a log with young men on either side of it, drinking suspicious beverages from unmarked containers. We tried the priest line again, and the guys enquired as to whether I was a priest who could spare 100,000 rupiah.

“Will you vote?” I asked.

“No,” one guy said. We drove on, to Bokondini.

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Bokondini, a town in the new highland district, Tolikara, one of 30 new districts created in Papua since 1998.

Tolikara has a problem with election violence. In February 2012 the capital, Karubaga, hosted a little war between incumbent district leader and Golkar member Jon Tabo’s supporters and a Partai Demokrat electoral challenger, Usman Wanimbo. 11 were killed, 201 wounded, 122 homes burned. Usman won the election. In January 2013 Husia Yosia Karoba, a Golkar legislator in Tolikara, urged a crowd in Gilibandu to vote for the Golkar gubernatorial candidate. He was then stomped to death by Partai Demokrat supporters.

In Bokondini, the latest manifestation of the 2012 electoral conflict can be found in the struggle between the Bogoga and Wanui, two loose-knit political-clan-church federations, each seeking their own district. The Bogoga claim that they are the original (adat) people of the valley, whilst the Wanui are ‘newcomers’, even though the Bogoga and Wanui are often from the same clans. The Bogoga also claim the divine right to their own district because they were the first to receive the gospel. The Bogoga are also associated with the Karubaga people, Tabo supporters in 2012: Tabo first proposed a Bogoga district back then, and this drive for a new district may contain his ambition to run a future Bogoga.

The Wanui ranks are filled with notables from one of the largest churches in the highlands. Golkar supports Bogoga; Demokrat supports Wanui. Whoever gets the district will shut the other side out. Some Bogoga talk about driving out the Wanui. These artificial designations are embraced by a distinct minority of local Papuans (most are nervous spectators, not participants, in this issue), and yet the implied violence is very real.

The day before I arrived, a rumor spread through the Bogoga supporters: the letter authorizing the establishment of Bogoga was signed by the Bupati of Tolikara! Soon men would land at the airstrip to spread the good news. Gatherings on runways to await a prophet, goods, or good news is a common thing in the highlands. A thousand Bogoga supporters descended on Bokondini and awaited the plane. 200 pigs were killed and cooked on the football pitch.

A plane did arrive: it regurgitated Golkar candidate Agustina Basikbasik, Papuan resident of West Jakarta. Basikbasik addressed the crowd: if you vote for me, I’ll give you Bogoga district! Basikbasik is a member of DPRI Commission 2, which issues recommendations on proposed administrative units.

The Wanui supporters have their own rumor: the Mayor of Tolikara will arrive in a helicopter and fly around the site. The chopper’s path will mark the boundaries of Wanui.

The Bogoga- Wanui conflict is one of the more raw forms of political struggle in that it blurs the lines between clans and churches, with many men and women of ambition aligning themselves according to the power they seek as individuals. Others are forced to choose, because of geography, or the direction of their clan leader, or what their pastor (who is also often a clan leader) says. Clan leaders have rationally assumed the garb of Indonesia’s vacuous political parties, in order to seek what that faraway politicians can award. Parties seek clan votes, and clan members join the local party branches. But in Bokondini right now, the veneer of clan struggle has fallen away, and what remains sees clans dividing as extended family units (marga) within the same clan take opposing sides.

PKS, Indonesia's most conservative Islamic party, rallies in Tolikara, a new Papuan district in the highlands

The Prosperous Justice party sits on the fringe of an electoral landscape dominated by Golkar and the Demokrats.

Fringe parties circle for electoral scraps left by the dominant parties, Golkar and Demokrat. This results in strange scenes.

Like the two surreal political rallies I witness in Bokondini, where the two most overtly Muslim political parties in Indonesia, the United Development Party and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) –both of whom advocate syariah law–stump for the Christian vote.

A friend and I wait with the local Papuan PPP supporters for the arrival of the candidates from Wamena. Some sit under a tarpaulin, singing. Two guys stroll behind the tent to smoke a joint.

Few know that the PPP is Muslim, and those who know don’t care. They crowds are here for the food, and the Papuan cadres explain their involvement:

“It’s a bridge,” one guy says. The party, that is. “That’s all.” A bridge to one’s aspirations.

Parties ask that candidates pay for their ticket. The older and better connected the party, the higher the price. This means that only well to do Papuans and migrants have the cash to pay for the candidacies that established parties like Golkar and the Democrats sell. Candidates are also backed by ‘success teams’ that provide cash and food to hand out at rallies, and when their candidates win, the contracts and favors come their way.

Ambitious young people gravitate toward fringe parties, like the PPP because the cost of a regional legislature candidacy is much less. Who cares if they’re Muslim? In Jakarta, the United Development Party may be the party of geriatric conservative Suryadama Ali, but in Tolikara, it’s the party of indigenous Christians, with clan loyalties, who pay for it.


Young but cash-strapped political hopefuls are attracted to Islamic parties because they offer an affordable bridge to the elite.

Iche, a local pastor’s wife, told me she didn’t care who won, because “they’re all liars anyway… people show up for the food”. The one politician she and others get excited about is Jokowi (current Jakarta Governor and PDI-P presidential nominee Joko Widodo).

A Hilux convoy arrives and three muscular, nearly naked men with bows begin running back and forth. Parties pay for these displays of Papuan ‘authenticity’, and some of the people they pay to wear it don’t know how to put it on. One bowman doesn’t even know how to wear his penis gourd. “What does he think he’s doing with that?” one woman asks. Others shake their heads and cluck their tongues as he dances about cluelessly, tackle akimbo, koteka flipped up like a little cup fashioned from a sheep’s horn.

The next day, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) arrives, with half of the United Development Party (PPP) crowd and none of the energy. The same teenaged girls in bras from yesterday’s PPP rally hoisted PKS flags. The rally opened with a Christian prayer. A pig rooted about under the stage. If only Anis Matta, the PKS party president, could see this!! I kept thinking.


It wouldn’t be a highland rally, without shirtless women and penis gourds, but not everyone knows how to wear it.

A small group of disinterested Papuans sip on water cups provided by the PKS cadres. I sit next to an old man who thinks the PKS are Christian. I mention the beef import scandal that saw the party’s former president, Luthfi Hasan Ishaaq, go to prison last year. The old man remembers. “Ah well.” He jokes about how he’ll vote whether he shows up at the polls or not, because of the “noken” voting system- an allegedly indigenous practice where everybody agrees to let their traditional leaders vote for them after a nominal period of consensus. But the powerful here won’t vote for this lot. They’re voting along Bogoga/ Golkar and Wanui/ Demokrat lines.

The young PPP Papuan spoke wisely. Indonesia’s political parties are bridges: to the accumulation of wealth and power, to opportunities to receive bribes, cut deals, and connect allies, friends, relatives with contracts, jobs, whatever. The key to understanding parties here is recognizing that they are franchises. Ideology isn’t necessary: parties barely have positions. So it doesn’t matter that a party that promotes Islamic law is campaigning in a Christian district. Don’t think conservative, liberal or green; think McDonalds for Golkar, Pizza hut for PDI-P, and if you are PKS, think Kenny Rogers Roasters. Candidates pay for the name, get the backing of the network, display the brand, and offer nothing of any sustenance.

Corruption constitutes, rather than simply affects, this system. Only recently have select politicians- Jokowi, Ahok (Jakarta vice-Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnana), Risma (Surabaya Mayor Tri Rismaharini) and others, begun to break this paradigm. But it will take time for the perception of ‘public’ office as a place of spoils to change. I’m sure there are candidates in Papua who don’t fit this paradigm. I just don’t know who they are, and my Papuan friends don’t know either. Right now it’s Golkar and Demokrat: there’s no death toll in 2014 yet, but there may be. As for alternates to these zero-sum battles, there’s just PKS, PPP and a few pigs on the football pitch in Tolikara, and most people don’t feel like choosing.