THE MAIN market in Ambon, the capital of the Indonesian province of Maluku, is a riotous affair. Stalls sprawl from the pavement into the road. Shouting over the screech and rattle of traffic, vendors and customers haggle over bags of spices and fresh-cut bunches of bananas. The smell of durians and barbecued fish hangs in the air. Amid the hubbub, a group of vendors finds time to talk politics. They hold a dim view of their leaders in Jakarta, Indonesia’s distant capital, insisting that their lives are never improved by new policies. “The central government does not really think about us,” says one. “It just does whatever people in the west think.”
By “the west”, she means the islands of Java and Sumatra, which together are home to more than three-quarters of Indonesians (see map). The rest are spread across a further 13,000 or so islands. On April 17th 190m voters across the archipelago will head to the polls to pick a president as well as national and regional legislatures. Because national politicians naturally lavish attention on the most populous places, people in the far-flung corners of the country often feel neglected.
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Maluku is a good example. It is sparsely populated, with less than 2m of the country’s 265m people. It is also remote—some 2,400km from Jakarta. Small wonder national politicians rarely visit. That peeves Moluccans, giving them the sense that their problems are not understood by those in power in Jakarta. Olivia Latuconsina, a candidate for the local parliament, points out that Maluku consists of more than 1,400 islands. That makes building infrastructure and delivering public services much more expensive than on Java. But this cost is not reflected in the central government’s transfers to the regions.
Poor public services, partly due to meagre funding, amplify resentment. In remote bits of Maluku schools lack textbooks and classrooms; teachers are often anyone from the village with a high-school diploma. On some islands locals have to get in a boat even to collect fresh water. Moluccans are aghast when they see photos of Jakarta’s highways and high-rises. “We are being left behind,” laments Iqbal Kumkelo, a student.
Almost a fifth of Moluccans live below the poverty line of $28 a month, twice the national average. GDP per person in the province is about $1,700, on a par with Congo. In Jakarta it is ten times higher, similar to Poland’s. Last year three villagers in a remote part of the province died of starvation before the government could send aid, after rodents ate their crops.
In theory a strong local government should help counter the sense of disenfranchisement. In 1999 Indonesia started a process of decentralisation, partly to sap support for the country’s various separatist movements, including a largely dormant one in Maluku. Provincial and local governments have accrued ever more powers. They now account for half of all government spending.
But many in Maluku have lost trust in local politicians, citing broken promises. Ido, a fisherman, complains that a lending scheme announced by the local mayor never got off the ground. Roly, another fisherman, says local officials only distribute handouts from the central government to their friends and relatives. One well-connected farmer was given free fishing equipment, which lies unused in his field.
Nonetheless, Moluccans seem determined to vote. Students, businessmen, fishermen and street vendors all proudly say that it is their duty to participate, no matter how disillusioned they feel. And the province is refreshingly free of identity politics. Most Indonesians are Muslims. Elections often become contests of piety rather than policy. Smear campaigns have accused Joko Widodo, the president, who is running for re-election, of being a closet Christian. Maluku, where two-fifths of people are Christian, suffered a paroxysm of religious violence from 1999 to 2002. More than 5,000 people died.
Those horrors have made Moluccans particularly wary of attempts to capitalise on divisions between Christians and Muslims. Two of the local candidates for PAN, an Islamic party, are Protestant. A Muslim student group recently helped paint a new church near their university. “We are united, just like brothers and sisters,” says Max Hallussy, a local priest. It is a unity forged in adversity.