updated 6/29/2004 12:36:23 PM ET 2004-06-29T16:36:23

Walking past open sewers and crowded tenements, the campaign organizer for President Megawati Sukarnoputri pointed to a glistening white and beige mosque, boasting that her party spent $1,600 to renovate it.

The Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle has also handed out rice, instant noodles and fish in this impoverished north Jakarta neighborhood, Kaprawi said proudly, and plans to offer free circumcisions, a tradition in this Muslim nation but often too expensive for the poor.

The gifts show Megawati’s “character,” said the 53-year-old party activist, who like many Indonesians uses a single name. “She is concerned with the little people. That’s why we support her.”

But critics have another word for Megawati’s tactics. They say the Indonesian leader, who is up for re-election on July 5, is bribing the electorate.

Anti-graft activists complain that Indonesia’s transition from a dictatorship to a democracy has opened the door to a lucrative market in money politics.

The voter intimidation and government-funded projects that ex-dictator Suharto used to prop up his 32-year-old rule, they say, has given way to newly independent political parties spending large sums to woo voters.

“It all depends on a voter’s needs,” said Luky Djani of Indonesian Corruption Watch. “Farmers might get tools or fertilizer. An Islamic boarding school will get books and money for a new building.”

Money politics is nothing new in Asia, where politicians in the Philippines, Thailand and Taiwan have become legendary for showering voters with cash.

In May elections in the Philippines, opponents of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo accused her of paying officials to win re-election — from about $9,000 for a mayor to $80,000 for a senator. In the 2001 legislative elections in Thailand, candidates gave $490 million to voters, anti-graft groups estimate.

Buying votes, activists say, is not as widespread in Indonesia but it is growing for much the same reason it has elsewhere in Asia — ineffective government and a culture of corruption.

Prize drawings, extra pay
On the Indonesian campaign trial, there appears to something for every voter.

Supporters at a recent Megawati rally in Jakarta said they were trucked free to the event and received $5, free lunch and T-shirts for attending.

In the East Kalimantan region, a rally for former Gen. Wiranto, the candidate of Suharto’s Golkar Party, ended earlier this year with a prize drawing for television sets, stereo systems and a motorcycle.

Megawati has given the country’s civil servants an extra month of salary ahead of the election and used a campaign stop last weekend in West Java to hand out $2.8 million in computers, scholarships and tractors.

Many candidates mix stump speeches with offers of free medical checkups, scholarships and construction supplies to needy villages. Front-runner Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former Cabinet minister, paid for a traditional puppet performance promoting his candidacy.

Anti-graft activists say the big money — from $5,000 to $20,000 — is doled out quietly to village councils, mosques and Islamic boarding schools, all influential bodies in the world’s most populous Muslim nation. Megawati’s party, for example, has given more than $50,000 to 60 mosques in north Jakarta, Kaprawi estimated.

“Indonesia is a very communal country so if you can buy the local leaders then you can get their followers,” Djani said.

Givers see it as charity
Most campaigns deny involvement in money politics, and describe their giving as charity.

“We have to take care of them (our supporters),” said Wiranto’s campaign treasurer Beni Prananto. He acknowledged Wiranto had given money to Islamic boarding schools and to buy water pumps in poor villages.

“It’s not necessarily bad that they are asking for our help,” he said. “It’s a service we are providing. The government can’t help them.”

The country’s campaign finance laws bars candidates from giving or promising money to influence the vote. But international and local election officials admit that campaigns largely ignore the law and the public rarely reports infractions — only two so far this campaign.

“We know they all give money to their supporters,” said Komaruddin Hidayat of the Election Supervisory Body which investigates complaints. “But it is not easy to prove they gave money for a vote. The election law is not perfect and the rules on money politics are not clear.”

In the end, Hidayat and others say the impact of money politics will lie with voters like 19-year-old student Arief.

He has attended dozens of rallies for different political parties since April, but insist it is not because he wants to hear what candidates have to say.

“I’ll go to any rally as long as they give me money and T-shirts,” Arief said. “But it won’t influence my choice. I’ve already decided to vote for Yudhoyono.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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