The Intense Political Campaigns of Indonesia’s 1955 Elections: A Historical Perspective

On April 4, 1953, a few months before its dissolution, the Wilopo Cabinet ratified Law No. 7 of 1953 on elections to choose members of the People’s Representative Council and the Constituent Assembly. This marked the beginning of an intense political campaign that unfolded across Indonesia. In this article, we delve into the dynamics of the 1955 elections, exploring the strategies employed by major political parties such as the National Party of Indonesia (PNI), Masyumi, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), and the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).

As Herbert Feith noted in “Election Indonesia of 1955” (1971), the campaign witnessed an ideological battle, with political parties vigorously promoting their platforms to address the nation’s tumultuous issues. PNI and Masyumi engaged in fierce competition from the start, fueled by Sukarno’s speech in January 1953, where he warned against the formation of an Islamic state, leading PKI to join the attack on Masyumi.

Masyumi responded by forming the “Anti-Communist Front,” with Isa Anshary delivering fiery speeches condemning non-Muslim political leaders as hypocrites and infidels. The ideological clash extended to NU and Masyumi’s competition at the village level, where promises of paradise and hell were used to garner support.

As the election campaign progressed, urban and rural landscapes were inundated with campaign materials such as billboards, pamphlets, flags, and posters. Parties recruited new members directly, and public gatherings, religious holidays, and cultural events were leveraged to rally mass support.

Masyumi gained recognition for frequently organizing film screenings during its campaigns, adding a modern touch to its Islamic image. Meanwhile, PNI utilized traditional Betawi arts like Lenong and Ondel-Ondel in Jakarta to connect with the local population.

In Semarang, PNI’s use of night patrols (“ronda malam”) to remind people to vote for the party showcased innovative campaign strategies. The Communist Party (PKI) organized art shows and popular festivals while leveraging underdeveloped organizations for community development programs.

The absence of specific regulations on campaign duration allowed the fervor to continue until the day before the vote. However, concerns about security, particularly related to the DI/TII movement, led to restrictions in certain regions starting from September 25 to September 29.

Despite the lack of precise data on campaign expenditures, political parties generally relied on membership dues and contributions from sympathetic donors. PNI, having the highest vote share, spent significant campaign funds, aided by corruption within the Ali Sastroamidjojo cabinet.

PKI, despite limited clarity on its funding sources, was believed to have spent at least 200 million rupiahs during the 1955 and 1957 campaigns. Speculations arose about external funding from Chinese entrepreneurs and communist governments abroad.

The 1955 elections in Indonesia were marked by intense ideological battles, innovative campaign strategies, and varying financial landscapes for political parties. The aftermath revealed the importance of both social and financial resources in determining electoral success, with larger parties benefiting from diverse funding streams and strategic alliances.