Abdon Nababan, one of Indonesia’s foremost indigenous rights activists. Photo: Philip Jacobson / Mongabay

21 June 2018 (Mongabay) – In July last year, Abdon Nababan, one of Indonesia’s most prominent activists, announced his intention to run for governor in his home province of North Sumatra. During his decade-long tenure as head of AMAN, the country’s main advocacy group for indigenous rights, Abdon led the organization to a series of high-profile wins. These included a landmark court decision that eroded the state’s legal claim to indigenous peoples’ territories, which have widely been leased out to agribusiness and extractive companies by corrupt politicians. North Sumatra is no exception: Its last two governors were convicted of graft.

North Sumatra, home to nearly 14 million people, is a bastion of the indigenous rights movement, and in many respects Abdon was an ideal candidate — politically connected, charismatic, an experienced campaigner, social-media savvy, and a political outsider and reformer in the mold of current President Joko Widodo. The vote for governor will take place later this month, but Abdon didn’t make it onto the ballot. Instead, the election will be contested by two candidates representing the more familiar faces of Indonesian politics. One of the them is a retired army general, while the other is running alongside a wealthy palm oil baron.

The fact that Abdon couldn’t stand reflects a phenomenon Mongabay and The Gecko Project have been investigating over the past 18 months: the role of money in elections, and its connection to destructive business interests that have established a stranglehold over politics in much of Indonesia, a young democracy still recovering from more than three decades of military rule. To get on the ticket, Abdon says, he faced the choice of illegally paying political parties millions of dollars to back his candidacy, or standing as an independent by collecting the signatures and copies of the ID cards of nearly 800,000 voters. He chose the latter route and, despite garnering more than half a million backers in less than four months, was not able to meet the deadline.

As Abdon tried to get on the ballot, he was afforded an inside look at how business and political interests collide and corruption flourishes in the lead-up to an election in Indonesia. In an exclusive interview with Mongabay and The Gecko Project, below, he described how:

  • He was approached by a consortium of business interests who offered to provide 300 billion rupiah ($21 million) to bankroll his campaign;
  • The trade-off would have entailed handing over de facto control of budgetary and land allocations in the province;
  • Political operatives offered to provide him with an additional 300,000 signatures so that he could qualify to run as an independent, at a cost of 40 billion rupiah ($2.8 million);
  • He believes progressive candidates can break through by running as independents, given more time and civil society support;
  • He believes progressive candidates can employ national-level policies and transparency initiatives to close the opportunity for corruption.

An interview with Abdon Nababan

Mongabay and The Gecko Project: Why did you run for governor of North Sumatra?

Abdon Nababan: Firstly, because they asked me to run — indigenous peoples, farmers, activists. Secondly, because North Sumatra is one of the worst [provinces] for governance right now in Indonesia. We are lowest on the happiness index, almost equal with Papua. There is corruption, and a land mafia. So the second reason is because of the problems. I wanted to do something different in North Sumatra. The third, because it’s my home, my indigenous land. So I have personal reasons to do good things in my own land.

What’s the “land mafia”?

Abdon Nababan: There is a group of a few families in Medan [the provincial capital] that control land transactions. They work with the OKP [Organisasi Kemasyarakatan Pemuda, or youth community organizations], the civilian paramilitaries. Almost all mafia are connected with these organizations. They control the market and they control the bureaucracy related to land. They control the systems of land transfer from communities, even from the state, to become real estate or industrial special zones and so forth. They are criminal organizations. [more]

Abdon Nababan: ‘North Sumatran land mafia offered me $21m to win election — and then hand over control of government’

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