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Stars compete for Indonesian office

By Lucy Williamson
BBC News, Jakarta

Training course in Indonesia
The celebrities are given intensive political training
It is the kind of scene paparazzi here dream of.

A dozen or so of Indonesia's best known faces - actors, comics, musicians - all crammed into the tiny back office of a Jakarta PR company, killing time with gossip before their class begins.

These are the new secret weapons of Indonesian politics.

Would-be politicians who are swapping celebrity for public service and running for parliament next year, under the banner of the National Mandate Party, or Pan.

"A mutual love affair," Pan calls it. And if that is the case, then these classes are the pre-marital counselling.

The party's new celebrity candidates may be lovable, but - as democracies the world over have discovered - putting people with no experience on the campaign trail comes with its own risks.

'Integrity'

And so, on the agenda at politician-school today: how to make a political campaign. They have already covered debating, budgeting and how to pass a bill.

But can you really build a politician from scratch in just a few classes?

"Frankly speaking, it's difficult to teach them," one teacher confided to me. "Especially about politics, and election law, and things like this. Some of them are quite receptive. Some don't understand."

Indonesia is a place where electability is closely tied to recognisability
Dodi Ambardi, LSI
And which, I wonder, is Maylaf? She is not your typical Indonesian MP material: she is a successful musician; she is under 35; she is not a man and she has no background in politics.

She does not want to talk about the global credit crunch, and is not sure about foreign policy, but she does have something that might work in her favour.

"I don't come from a political background," she admits, "but as an artist, I value integrity - that's one thing: most artists are not corrupt!"

Untainted freshness

A man holds Indonesian rupiah notes in Jakarta (20/11/2008)
Indonesian politics has been damaged by corruption scandals
Corruption is certainly a big issue here at the moment. For the first time, the parliament is being held to account by the country's newly empowered Corruption Eradication Commision.

Lists of corruption suspects can sometimes read like a Who's Who of Indonesian politics.

And so, to an electorate weary of the same old faces and the same old way of doing things, Maylaf and the other 20 or so celebrities running for Pan do have something to offer - they come from a different background, and they bring an untainted freshness, a bit of star quality.

A recent poll by the Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI) showed that voters picked artists over established politicians to a remarkable degree: four out of the five most popular names were celebrities, not politicians.

But according to political analysts, it is not their squeaky clean image or their freshness that makes them electable, so much as their familiarity.

"Indonesia is a place where electability is closely tied to recognisability," LSI's senior researcher, Dodi Ambardi explained.

"Voters choose candidates they know. All the artists who have become candidates are famous through television."

Unpredictable

Screen showing advertising campaign at a Jakarta training course.
Pan says their candidates have the potential to be good politicians
There are still five months to go before the parliamentary elections, but pollsters say some parties, including the Democrat Party of the current president, have suddenly cottoned on to the power of television, and begun putting much more money into television air time - and they are seeing immediate results.

But TV air time is expensive. And insiders say many of the larger, older parties here are seeing their donations drop dramatically as big business players feel the squeeze of the global credit crunch.

Celebrities, by contrast, already come with a high recognition factor built-in.

But while their popularity might help get them elected, once inside parliament, they will be up against politicians with more traditional backgrounds, and carefully honed political skills.

Pan says that is not a problem; their new candidates are not just celebrities, but also people with the potential to be good politicians.

That may be so, but still, like love affairs, politics is renowned for being unusually hard to predict.

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SEE ALSO
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Indonesia corruption drive breeds fear
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Country profile: Indonesia
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