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Yellow campaign has opposition seeing red

Sydney Morning Herald - March 19, 1997

In local campaigning for national elections in May, parties are not afraid to nail their colours to the mast, even if they have to paint whole towns to do it, reports Herald Correspondent LOUISE WILLIAMS from Solo, Central Java.

The buses, the fences, the monuments, the kerbs and even the tree trunks and the rocks along the roadside are glowing with fresh yellow paint in one of the most bizarre and bitterly fought campaign tussles of Indonesia's coming national elections.

Yellow is the colour of the ruling Golkar Party of President Soeharto and the "yellowisation" of the densly populated rural towns and villages of central Java is the idea of the local government authorities of the old royal capital of Solo.

Three times now teams of enthusiastic Government servants have painted the towns yellow, a mammoth undertaking involving millions of brush strokes along vast stretches of roadways. Twice now their critics have fielded teams of their own to paint the public facilities white again.

The Muslim-based opposition United Development Party (PPP) has now announced it will sue the Solo local government, claiming it has no legal right to use public facilities as campaigning tools in the election. Rather than trying to change the colour back again, with limited manpower and financial resources, stickers are appearing across yellow tree trunks in the neutral red and white strips of the Indonesian flag.

The Solo city government has explained the campaign away as merely a nationalistic outpouring, claiming yellow is the colour of a local bird as well as a symbol of the 50th anniversary of Indonesia's declaration of independence - which was two years ago.

But a local academic, Dr Andrik Purwasito, says the campaign is a symptom of Golkar's declining popularity in the wake of a series of religious and ethnic riots, increasing disquiet over corruption in government institutions and social jealously over the gap between the rich and poor.

Dr Andrik said: "In the villages there are warnings that Golkar will have a difficult time dominating this election. "The popularity of Golkar is diminishing so they are trying to devise a new tactic to boost their campaign.

"Central Java is considered a key region in the national voting pattern and the local government authorities are worried a reduced vote will undermine their prestige and authority."

The issue of prestige is particularly important in Solo, the home town of the late wife of President Soeharto, Ibu Tien, who is buried in an elaborate vault in the cemetery of the royal family on the outskirts of town. Javanese culture affords considerable respect and adoration to a leader and such has been the standing of the Soeharto family in the past in central Java. To further reinforce the importance of the location of the family grave near Solo, numerous new five-star hotels have been built and the local airport has been expanded to take international flights in readiness for an expected influx of tourists.

Dr Andrik said: "Leaders in Java are like kings, they must create an atmosphere of unity. To achieve this they want to create symbols of unity, so everything that is yellow shows we must support Golkar."

However, the local branch of the PPP has already vocally challenged the election campaign, saying the extensive resources of the Government which are being used to back Golkar mean opposition parties cannot fairly compete.

Apart from challenging the colour campaign the PPP has announced boycotts of the election in eight central Java branches, despite President Soeharto's warning that he will treat "very severely" anyone encouraging others to boycott the polls.

In the markets of Solo cheap yellow batik shirts are on display, commissioned by local factories for the lead-up to the election. None is available for the opposition parties. Shoppers say they do not know who is painting the town. All they know is that when they go to bed it is one colour and when they get up it is another.

They also know the most recent anti-yellow campaign was led by a soothsayer related to the royal family of Solo who recently spent a year in jail for calling President Soeharto a dictator. He went to the Solo Palace and asked for the Sultan's permission to paint the town white again, which was granted. Yellow was back the next day.