Poll looms, Constitutional Court unbans campus campaigning

While Indonesians go to the polls next February to vote for a president, official campaigning by the three candidates begins this month. A recent Constitutional Court ruling that educational institutions may be used as venues for campaigning could herald a major change in campus-based politics and impact on the important youth vote.

The new ruling has drawn mixed reactions. Before the 15 August decision Indonesian universities and schools were seen as neutral zones for political campaigning based on the country’s election regulation that said: “General election organisers, participants and campaign teams are prohibited from using government facilities, places of worship, education venues.”

Now the Constitutional Court’s revised campaign regulation allows politicians and official presidential candidates to speak at university campuses on condition that they previously obtain permission from university authorities.

However, campaign leaflets, banners and other ‘party attributes’ remain banned from these venues, according to the revised regulation.

Explaining the restrictions on campaigning materials in its legal considerations, delivered by Constitutional Justice Enny Nurbaningsih, the court asserted that election campaign restrictions were based on strong rationale – to maintain integrity, transparency and justice in the political process. Without restrictions campaigns could potentially lead to the spread of disinformation, slander or manipulation in an attempt to influence voters, he said.

Nurbaningsih added that these restrictions also help maintain equality in elections, so that all candidates have an equal chance of gaining support.

Hasyim Asy’ari, chairman of the General Election Commission, said that political campaigning on university campuses by presidential candidates was necessary because academics, lecturers and students will have a chance to criticise, question and make suggestions on what the candidates say they are offering.

“All future leaders should be challenged and questioned to see whether their political programmes are relevant and realistic,” Asy’ari said.

Campuses never free from politics

Academics point out that universities and schools have never been free of political intrigue and power politics. Political parties try to use universities as a base to extend their influence among lecturers, scientists and students. Lecturers have associations indirectly linked to certain parties, while student organisations are commonly affiliated to political parties.

Nonetheless, previous restrictions regarding university and school venues were aimed at avoiding political contention and discord among academics and researchers. As a result, some worry that the new regulation could lead to rifts and divisions among students and lecturers, which is not good for education.

Abdul Mu’ti, a senior lecturer at the State Islamic University Syarif Hidayatullah in Jakarta and general secretary of Muhammadiyah – a major Islamic organisation in Indonesia that also operates many educational facilities – said that although it was now allowed by the new regulation, he will not give permission for presidential campaigns at universities and schools under his administration.

“It will have a negative impact on academic work. And political interest in university organisations will get stronger,” Mu’ti said.

Professor Nizam Nizam, director general for higher education, research and technology at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Research and Technology, reminded universities to remain neutral and distance themselves from political activities. He said academic activities cannot be sacrificed for political activities on campus.

[h]Some are in favour

Many Indonesians believe that schools are not an appropriate place for campaign activities and could cause more disruption after the learning interruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Dr Ramdany, senior lecturer at the Jakarta Muhammadiyah University, supports the new regulation for universities.

“Any political plan that will affect society should be put to the test and undergo ‘intellectual screening’ in universities so people will see what future leaders are offering and can decide which candidate they will vote for,” Ramdany told University World News.

But he added that this would work “only if the campaign is presented as dialogue or discussions, and not as political oration”. He noted that opening universities to political campaigning will make higher education institutions more relevant to the world outside their campuses.

Ramdany also sees the court decision as a way to respond to growing apathy towards politics among the younger generation. “So far, the young generation mostly sees politics as a power game between politicians, businesspeople, and groups of people vying for political and economic concession.

“They think that way because they are not involved in the political process,” he added.

Rocky Gerung, an academic and popular public intellectual and political analyst, sees the ruling as positive. “Political thinking and plans affect the future of the nation, so it should be observed, discussed, and analysed thoroughly. And universities are the proper places for that,” he said on CNN Indonesia.

He was not afraid of divisions among students, noting that students are mature enough. “They will appreciate different choices and opinions. Election campaign platforms on university campuses will enable students to become accustomed to differences, and that’s an important part of education,” Gerung said.

Student reaction

The Student Executive Body (BEM) of the University of Indonesia is excited about the new regulation, saying students will be able to take part in the exchange of ideas and political plans that shape the country’s future.

On 8 August BEM sent invitation letters to the three presidential candidates to a panel discussion where they would be able to confront each other on their political plans.

The presidential debate initially scheduled for 14 September was later cancelled as the only candidate prepared to come was Anies Rasyid Baswedan, an academic and former governor of Jakarta.

Ganjar Pranowo, governor of Central Java and the candidate for the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, happened to be performing umrah (minor pilgrimage), while Prabowo Subianto, in his third bid for the presidency, is on state duty as the country’s defence minister.

“If they had come we would have peeled back their heads,” said Melki Sedek Huang, head of BEM at the University of Indonesia, meaning that the students could look closely at the candidates’ thoughts.

While candidates begin campaigning this month, airing their political programmes and agendas via the media, public speeches and mass gatherings, the general election campaign is scheduled to start officially on 28 November and last until 10 February 2024.

The presidential campaign will resume on 2 to 22 June 2024 if a second round of campaigning is needed. The new president is expected to take office by the end of 2024.