Donut Politics

Voters carry packs of donuts from the campaign. Photo by author.

Food is an integral part of political campaigning in Indonesia. So much so that campaign financing always includes a budget for food, often referred as ‘konsumpsi’. Candidates hope the goodwill generated by the gift of a sweet or a meal will leave an impression on voters. For this reason the novelty gift of a donut, particularly for those in rural areas, has been adopted as a deliberate campaign strategy by one legislative candidate in Malang.

On my second day of shadowing this candidate our first activity was handing out donuts at a village on the outskirts of Batu. The boxes were branded with a party sticker featuring the face of the candidate and the Party’s leader. The sticker also showed the candidate’s party number and her personal number. This is important now that voters can direct their vote to a particular candidate rather than just vote for a party.

We stepped out onto a small paved path that ran through the village. The candidate’s car was open and the driver was handing out boxes. Word spread like wildfire and children and adults alike ran out to grab their treat.

Once we left I asked the candidate why she had chosen to give out donuts as part of her campaign strategy. The response was: ‘It’s just a little gift…. We’re guests in their village and we want them to remember us fondly so when they vote they will think of me… it’s just something small.’

Fair enough, you might say. Political candidates hand out all kinds of mementos from t-shirts, calendars and stickers, to more expensive door prizes like motorcycles and refrigerators at rallies.

But where do candidates draw the line?

And how do they justify such practices in the face of accusations of money politics?

Particularly for candidates, like this one, who are running on a strong anti-corruption platform.

Candidate: ‘Well… of course some people do give cash, but I don’t agree with that. It just isn’t right.’

Me: ‘But it still costs money to give people food doesn’t it? What’s the difference between that and vote buying?’

Candidate: ‘Oh, no, vote buying is when you give people cash directly…when you buy them with money.’

Giving a person money in return for their vote is the most blatant form of money politics. In comparison, providing food seems much more innocuous. But if we dig beneath the surface, offering food can also provide opportunities for transferring funds. For example, at meetings the parliamentary aspirants are expected to feed those who attend and a failure to do so is viewed as very poor form. This process itself is a chance for meeting organisers to profit. Generally, the candidates will provide a lump sum of money for the food (often between Rp5000 and Rp 10,000 per attendee for this particular candidate). The money goes to the nominee’s primary contact in the village who then has the opportunity to channel those funds to their own family or friends and pocket the profits. It becomes a shadowy way for candidates to direct money to voters without overtly seeming corrupt.

And it’s a lot cheaper than buying their votes individually, with prices starting at about Rp50,000 per vote minimum in East Java (though reports from other regions suggest this figure varies considerably).

But on the other hand, while it may be a lot cheaper than buying votes with cash, food still costs money. This candidate estimated that she will need approximately 120,000 votes to be guaranteed a seat in the DPR. One donut costs Rp2500, not including the labour involved in packaging and distributing. Each package contains two donuts. If the candidate hands out 20,000 boxes (a conservative estimate), that’s already approximately AU$10,000. Not exactly cheap.

Child Donut Politics

Unless you’re a toddler, donut politics fail to truly satisfy. Photo by author.

Another factor here is that some villagers want to be bought. They have little faith or interest in the elections and see a monetary payoff as their primary benefit from the whole ordeal. Sitting in a ‘consultation’ the following day, villagers became irate when the candidate wavered on a previous agreement to provide new piping to distribute water within the village. As the candidate explained that the costs were quite high and she would only be able to make a contribution rather than fund the entire project, there were some exasperated whispers.

‘I can’t believe she came all the way here to bring us donuts.’

The spokesperson for the village was more diplomatic, saying that he appreciated that she had come all this way, but the villagers were hoping for more. Clearly, donuts weren’t going to cut it. In the end she caved and reaffirmed her promise of pipes. Later she told me that the project would cost around Rp20 million. She had the money but she suspected that the villagers were manipulating her and planning to get the piping then turn around and vote for someone else. Their dismissal of her donut gifts contributed to her frustration.

‘If someone gives you a gift, you should be thankful, no matter how small it is,’ she sighs.

Meanwhile the villagers got their piping and a box of donuts each. Without the former, I suspect they would’ve left the meeting with a bitter taste in their mouth, in spite of the delicious treat they received.

Elisabeth Kramer is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney studying anti-corruption rhetoric in the Indonesian parliamentary elections.