Politics and Football in Indonesia

Last week, the frustration of Indonesia’s legions of football fans boiled over into open confrontations in Jakarta and Makassar in which police had to fire shots in the air to disperse them. Two more days of demonstrations followed in other cities.

Clashes were reported between followers of Nurdin Halid, the head of the Indonesian Football Association, and fans seeking to drive him from the job. Ilham Arief Sirajuddin, the mayor of Makassar, told local reporters Halid "couldn’t ignore the fans’ frustration any longer. I hope he will realize that Indonesian football fans have rejected him."

The confrontation in Makassar between pro- and anti-Halid supporters occurred at South Sulawesi’s House of Representatives office, according to local reports, as dozens of Halid’s followers were listening to a speech when hundreds of anti-Nurdin protesters arrived at the scene and attacked them. In Papua, demonstrators assembled in front of the provincial office of the Indonesian National Sports Committee calling for Halid’s ouster.

Indonesians are mad for football and have been endlessly frustrated. The biggest country in Southeast Asia, it has been a traditional doormat, even losing to Malaysia in the Asean Football Federation Cup in December. The team has been drubbed in its quadrennial pursuit of the FIFA World Cup since 1938 when the team, then known as the Dutch East Indies, was eliminated in the first round. It withdrew in 1950, 1958 and 1962 and didn’t enter in 1954, 1966 and 1970. The team has been eliminated at the start of every World Cup round since 1974.

Halid is being blamed for mismanaging the national team, mishandling ticket distribution and a host of other issues including being jailed for two years for corruption during his two terms at the helm of the federation. He faces new charges of having received Rp100 million (US$11,350) from a football team in East Kalimantan.

Halid is attempting to hang onto his job despite the fact that 83 of the 100 members of the association want to oust him. The 83, including 57 league clubs and 26 federation regional offices, signed a no-confidence motion on Monday, seeking to drive him from power. That is a striking turnaround from early February, when 81 members nominated him for a third term ahead of the federation election in Bali, to be held on March 26 as football fans across the country were holding nationwide demonstrations.

As usual in Indonesia, however, the story appears to be all about politics. Halid is a former lawmaker and a senior member of the powerful Golkar Party headed by Aburizal Bakrie, probably the country’s richest businessman. Football has been regarded as an important political tool even prior to the advent of President Sukarno, the father of Indonesian independence, who came to power in 1945. The roots of the football federation go back to the 1930s as a reaction to Dutch colonial racism, which prevented natives from playing on the colonials’ soccer fields. The federation actually formed a symbolic part of the independence movement.

Control of sports associations or other organizations has in the past enabled politicians to mobilize electoral support. And Aburizal Bakrie has made no secret of his ambition to succeed President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in power in national elections in 2014.

Halid’s rapidly vanishing support could be due to the fact that the party recognizes he is no longer a viable candidate, given the demonstrations across the country. Among those challenging him is Nirwan Bakrie, the association's deputy chairman and Aburizal Bakrie’s brother. Others include oil and gas businessman Arifin Panigoro, once a big donor to the opposition Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle, or PDI-P headed by Megawati Sukarnoputri; and army chief of staff George Toisutta, who is believed to be loyal to Yudhoyono.

The Football Association has accused the Indonesian Sports Ministry of trying to influence the March polls by pressuring the elections committee to include both Toisutta and Panigoro in the list of candidates. In return the House of Representatives has asked the government to communicate with FIFA so the world governing body would not impose sanctions on the country. FIFA prohibits government interference in football matters, and it could suspend Indonesia from all international competition if it thinks the government has exerted undue influence.

The need for direct access to grassroots support in Indonesia, a fragmented country of more than 7,000 islands and diverse cultures, increased in the wake of 2004 electoral reforms that created a direct electoral system. Mass organizations have become the vehicle to mobilize votes.

Political analyst Muhamad Asfar, in an interview with the Jakarta Globe, cited the example of Saiful Ilah, the regent of Sidoarjo, East Java, who won the election for the post despite being seen as the weaker candidate, in a victory that observers credit to his chairmanship of the local football club. Former president Abdurrahman Wahid, for example, used Indonesia's largest Islamic organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, to win grassroots backing for his National Awakening Party, which he founded in 1998 as a vehicle for him to run for president the following year. Former general Prabowo Subianto courted national associations such as farmers' groups - with their millions of members - before teaming up with former president Megawati Sukarnoputri to contest the 2009 presidential election.