Indonesia's regional elections are still six months away, but candidates like Ridwan Kamil are already facing off with their opponents... over dangdut celebrities.
The incumbent mayor of Bandung, West Java, is scrambling to assemble a star-studded stage of celebrity supporters to boost his bid for the governor's seat in West Java. Ridwan has already secured the support of Syahrini, Raffi Ahmad, and Doel Sumbang. They're all massive celebrities in their own right, but there's still one name Ridwan needs to push his campaign over the top: Via Vallen.
“Via Vallen is currently booked by an East Java candidate, but hopefully she will change her mind,” Ridwan told local media.
Via Vallen (real name: Maulidia Octavi) is currently the hottest thing on the dangdut scene. She demands as much as Rp 60 million ($4,500 USD) per show, and can charge triple for appearances on the campaign trail, according Devia Sherly, an events organizer interviewed by KapanLagi.com. Dangdut singers like Via Vallen are in such demand that some can pocket as much as Rp 500 million ($37,000 USD) for a single concert.
That means that in a country where the average person earns total a mere Rp 2.4 million ($183 USD) a month, dangdut singers can amass a fortune most can only dream of in a single campaign season. And it's all because of a widespread belief in Indonesia's political world— a dangdut singer on the payroll equals votes in the ballot box.
Dangdut is widely seen as the music of the people in Indonesia. The genre is a musical chimera, one that's absorbed influences from classic American rock, 80s heavy metal, Malay pop, and Arabic melodies to create a style of music that can adapt to whatever the prevailing tastes are at the time. In recent years, dangdut has taken on strains of K-Pop, EDM, and Bollywood ballads as it continues to reinvent itself.
The genre is so popular that its stars are now an accepted part of politics. Back in 1977, the United Development Party (PPP) invited Rhoma Irama, the king of dangdut, to perform at a campaign rally and hundreds of thousands of fans flooded the stadium. Fast-forward to today, and Rhoma Irama has one failed presidential campaign and his own political party—the Peaceful and Benign Islam Party, or Idaman—under his belt.
But Rhoma's puritanical streak hides another reason why dangdut celebrities are so popular in Indonesia—the entire scene is soaked in sex. Some of the scene's biggest stars are also its raunchiest, and it's totally commonplace to see a woman in a miniskirt gyrating on stage as men hurl fistfuls of cash in the air at even the smallest concerts.
Yet, Via Vallen and Nella Kharisma represent a cleaner, more polished version of dangdut. Both women are wildly popular among Millennial fans, in no small part, because they present themselves as a newer, hipper, and more innocent, face of the genre. You won't see either one of them humping the air in front of a stranger's face on stage—a fact that probably makes them a safer choice for candidates like Ridwan.
But both Via Vallen and Nella Kharisma are already backing Syaifullah Yusuh and Puti Guruh Soekarno in the East Java governor's race. The pair's campaign team were quick to establish ties with dangdut fan communities and stars like Via Vallen and Nella Kharisma last year in an early play for the youth vote.
“These two singers represent Millennial voters," Sri Untari, the head of the campaign team, told local media. "I already did research on their fans. They had hundreds of thousands supporters spread along the coasts of Java."
The shift away from the more overtly sexual performances typical of dangdut koplo had already begun in the mid-aughts, wrote Jim Schiller, an Indonesia expert, in his paper "Electing District Heads in Indonesia: Democratic Deepening or Elite Enrichment." Schiller spent time on the ground in Jepara, Central Java, to follow the local race, writing that while some candidates still preferred to hire sexed-up dangdut performers, their stage antics often left female voters feeling embarrassed and disinterested in the candidates' message.
But in Indonesia's often-crowded elections, ones where there's little difference, policy-wise, between the candidates (everyone really promises the same things), political hopefuls feel that they need dangdut to convince potential voters to show up at rallies at all.
"It was obvious that the candidates thought they had to reward and entertain voters to get them to come to to rallies or to vote," Schiller wrote. "Sub-district and village rallies mostly took the form of scantily-clad dangdut singers and dancers who prepared the audience for the candidates' and spokespersons' brief speeches."
June's regional elections are shaping up to be just as crowded. The country will hold simultaneous elections in 171 different municipalities, including some of the most-powerful seats in the country. Decentralization has extended outsized influence to regional political offices, making, in many ways, local leaders like the district head and governor far more powerful on the ground than anyone in Jakarta.
With so much on the line, it's easy to see why candidates are turning to celebrities to boost their appeal. But does it work? Muradi, a political expert at Padjajaran University, doesn't think so. Actual policies, and time spent campaigning on the streets and meeting with voters on their own turf—a practice called "blusukan"—is far more effective.
“If this is being done merely to entertain the people, then it’s fine,” Muradi told VICE. “However, securing celebrities in hope of gaining votes is not a smart move. Blusukan is necessary. It’s a way to build the public’s perception of you. They need to know the quality of the candidate they might pick later.”