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Celebrity Political Candidates Raise Controversy in Indonesia


Julia Perez, popularly known as Jupe

Julia Perez, popularly known as Jupe

A sexually provocative singer and actress's campaign for political office in Indonesia has triggered debate over the growing role of celebrities in the young democracy.

If Indonesian celebrity Julia Perez is famous for one thing, it is being sexy. Her pop songs are filled with innuendo, her acting roles are steamy and her photo shoots leave little to the imagination. Her last album, called Kamasutra, came with a free condom.

But Perez, popularly known as Jupe, has turned her eye to politics. A coalition of nine political parties in the rural region of Pacitan has asked her to run for district head.

The election is only for a minor position but it is causing a stir for two reasons. First, because Jupe's sexy image does not sit well with many conservative Indonesians. And second, because the East Java community is the hometown of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Pacitan is far from the bright lights of Indonesia's capital, Jakarta. Cows mill on an empty windswept beach where there are a couple of modest hotels. The main industries are farming and fishing.

Sutikno, the local head Hanura, one of the parties wooing Jupe, says the current district head from Yudhoyono's Democrat Party has failed Pacitan.

Sutikno says what Pacitan needs is foreign investment and Jupe – who was raised in Europe and speaks English, French and Dutch – can bring it in.

Sutikno says he doubts local people will reject Jupe simply because of her sexy image. He says he was happy that when he met Jupe, she wore revealing clothing rather than a modest outfit. He says this shows at least she is more honest than many other politicians, who philander or engage in corruption while projecting an upstanding public image.

But not everyone agrees. Jupe's candidacy has caused a media storm and some leaders in Jakarta of the parties backing her have rejected her candidacy. Many see her candidacy - as well as the political campaigns of other celebrities - as a sign Indonesian politics has been steadily losing quality since the overthrow of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998.

Earlier this year the home minister, Gamawan Fauzi, proposed requirements that political candidates have a minimum level of experience in public service. That was widely interpreted as a response to Jupe's candidacy.

Jupe dismisses accusations she is unqualified, or too sexy, for the job. She also says being a famous entertainer – or artis, as they are known in Indonesia – at least means voters know enough about her to judge her on her merits.

"This is a sadness, also for me you know. People choose artis because they know them," says Jupe. "But I think this is like a good point also, they know them. What about if you don't know that person? What about if that person is a killer, a corruptor?"

Mohammad Qodari, a political analyst, says the rise of celebrity candidates is a result of Indonesia's confusing political scene. There are scores of political parties, but often there are few differences among them in ideology or policy.

The start of direct district-level elections in 2005 made the rise of celebrity candidates even more pronounced. But Qodari says Indonesian voters are getting smarter, and do not hesitate to kick out politicians who perform badly. He says political parties often ignore that.

"The main motivation is they [political parties] want to win and they have this main assumption, sweeping assumption, that all celebrities are popular and all celebrities have high electability and high probability to win, which is not the case," Qodari said.

In Pacitan, opinion is mixed but there is little strong objection to Jupe's candidacy.

Alexander is a fisherman at the port. He says the local sailors have few objections to being represented by a sexy woman.

He says the important thing is that the next district head improves the lives of local people. But if Jupe is elected, he says, she should dress a bit more modestly while on the job.

At a mosque, prayer leader Tumadi also says Jupe is free to run as a candidate, despite her image.

But Tumadi says, as a Muslim he thinks it is better that a man, and not a woman, takes the job.

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