When the Supporters Do Not Support: Politicizing a Soccer Fan Club in an Indonesian Election.

AuthorPermana, Yogi Setya

Direct elections of local government heads (pemilihan kepala daerah or pilkada) have drawn the attention of many scholars since they were introduced in Indonesia in 2005. (1) A wide-ranging literature on the topic now covers areas as diverse as the structures of local politics and their relations with capital, (2) the local politics of shariah regulation, (3) the relations between local elites and patronage politics, (4) the politicization of identity, including ethnicity, tradition and religion, (5) electoral financing, (6) and electoral dynamics in post-conflict or divided societies. (7) One persistent theme in the study of local electoral politics is the tendency of political candidates to co-opt a wide range of social networks into their electoral campaigns. In their attempts to mobilize voters at the grassroots of society, and in a context of personalized campaigning and party weakness, political candidates exploit their personal connections and provide patronage in order to make electoral use of social groups that were set up for other purposes. Accordingly, scholars have shown how candidates have mobilized groups from kinship networks, (8) religious institutions such as traditional Islamic boarding schools or pesantren, (9) customary institutions, (10) and women's organizations, (11) through to violent vigilante groups. (12) Indeed, it has been remarked that, in Indonesia, "almost any social network can be exploited for electoral purposes". (13)

In this context, one topic that has yet to receive serious attention is the role that sporting bodies, such as the fan clubs of major football teams, may play in electoral politics. On the face of it, these groups should be a target of electoral mobilization efforts. Fan clubs often have thousands of fanatical members, the loyalty of whom, if properly harnessed, could represent a powerful electoral force. At the same time, in recent years there has been growing awareness at the global level of the need to connect studies of football with analysis of the wider social and political context. This awareness has emerged in a context in which football has cemented itself as the world's most popular sport. (14) The last decade has accordingly seen the emergence of such journals as Sport in Society and Soccer & Society, which provide a forum for academic discussion of the intersection of football and socio-political life in Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America and beyond. After all, more than 250 million people around the world play football, and some 1.4 billion have connections to it of various sorts. (15)

A large number of such people are found in Indonesia, where football is the most popular sport. The Indonesian football league attracts the largest audience in all of Southeast Asia, with on average 11,000 supporters coming to stadiums for matches and more than 20,000 routinely turning up to matches involving the major clubs such as Arema Malang, Persib Bandung, Persipura Jayapura and Persija Jakarta. (16) Stadiums are routinely filled with passionate supporters who follow their clubs enthusiastically, despite the fact that Indonesia has never managed to lift itself out of the lowest level in international competition, having consistently failed to make it through the World Cup Asian qualifiers. (17)

Moreover, several scholars have pointed out that soccer in Indonesia is deeply politicized, plays a vital role in domestic politics and is embedded in everyday life. (18) Scholars have pointed to a connection between football and nation-state building in the post-colonial context, (19) noting that "it can be a channel for mass mobilization and a source of support", (20) and explained that football also helps to shape local cultures and political identities in the context of the decentralized Indonesia of the post-Soeharto era. (21)

This context gives us good reason to expect that football clubs, with all their thousands of supporters, will be a honeypot for politicians seeking popular support. Indeed, it has been pointed out that politicians routinely become administrators and patrons of clubs throughout Indonesia. (22) This trend has progressed to a point whereby in 2017 most clubs in the Indonesian premier league have as their chairpersons, or at least as a member of management, a leading political figure or a person closely associated with a political party. This close connection between football and politics occurs both because politicians seek to generate a positive image for themselves, and because they are seeking access to "lucrative football-related funding sources". (23) It is also readily observable that at least in some locations politicians use their influence within football clubs at election time to generate sympathy among supporters and mobilize them via their own networks. It has been observed, for example, how Dada Rosada used the "Viking" club of supporters of Persib Bandung to help generate votes in the mayoral election in the city of Bandung in 2008. (24) In East Java, it has been studied how "La Mania" supporters of Persela Lamongan were used by elites in a 2010 local election. (25) Brajamusti, the supporter group of PSIM (Persatuan Sepak Bola Indonesia Mataram, Mataram Indonesian Football Club) Yogyakarta, split as a consequence of conflicts of political interest among elites. (26) Both popular and academic literature have frequently mentioned the role of football fans in electoral politics.

However, the literature on football and politics in Indonesia still lacks studies that analyse in detail how supporters are mobilized at the grassroots during election campaigns. We do not yet have a clear picture of factors that facilitate or impede mobilization. This article aims to provide such an analysis, and starts by interrogating the very assumption that football fans are easily mobilized for electoral purposes. It does so by providing empirical evidence from the grassroots. I find that we cannot assume that mobilizing football supporters behind a candidate will automatically be an easy or simple affair. On the contrary, local context, notably the organizational form and group culture of the fans involved, will have a great influence. We cannot assume that electoral mobilization of football fans will occur everywhere in Indonesia.

I base this finding on a study located in the city (kota) of Batu. The city of Batu is a relatively new administrative area that was split off from the city of Malang in 2001. Though its official status is a city, Batu is in fact a hilly region some distance from the city of Malang, mostly consisting of rural villages. Batu, along with the city of Malang and the kabupaten (rural district) of Malang, form part of what is known as Malang Raya or Greater Malang. This part of the country is famous for its strong football tradition and for its fanatical supporters. As a former ESPN journalist, Anthony Sutton, put it, Arema, the local Malang football club, is the St. Pauli of Indonesia--referring to the St. Pauli club from the German league, which is known for having loyal, radical and left-wing fans. (27) Sutton meant that, for its diehard fans, Arema is more than just a club but is also a way of life. Its fans, organized in a group called Aremania, form a distinctive subculture with its own symbols, flag, anthem and organizational mechanisms. When Arema plays, the whole atmosphere in Malang changes, as though the city is experiencing a popular festival. On match day, the region seems to turn blue, with residents wearing the uniforms and attributes of their favourite club. (28)

Batu city held a mayoral election in February 2017 and, given the history of fanatical football fandom in Greater Malang, seemed an obvious place to test the conventional wisdom that football supporters are a potent source of electoral support in Indonesia. One of the candidates, Dewanti Rumpoko, was the wife of the incumbent and it was widely expected she would be able to use the Aremania network to support her campaign. After all, the Rumpoko family had a host of historical, policy and symbolic connections with the Arema club. However, I found that this strong connection did not automatically transform Aremania into a vote bank because of the egalitarian culture and non-hierarchical organizational pattern that existed within the group.

I advance my argument through several sections. In the first, I elaborate theoretically on the connection between football and politics, drawing especially on the case of Argentina as a point of reference. Many scholars have pointed out that Argentina presents an example par excellence of the integration of football and politics, (29) although it provides an extreme point of comparison with Indonesia. In the second section, I briefly review the story of the Arema club, Aremania, and the context of Greater Malang, explaining not only the history but also how the club has become an important symbol of Malang regional identity. The third section explores the extent of electoral mobilization through Aremania during the 2017 election. The fourth includes analysis of my fieldwork findings as well as comparative insights derived from Argentina, highlighting my key arguments and pointing to crucial factors that both influence and constrain the inter-relationship between football and electoral politics.

Theorizing Football and Politics

In the rapidly growing literature on football and politics, most studies focus on the relationship between football clubs and identity. A particular focus is on how clubs help construct national or local/regional identity. Adriano Gomez-Bantel, for example, explains that in contemporary society football clubs can be seen as symbolizing not only a particular geographic territory but also a philosophy. (30) The identity that develops around a club can make such a club a crucial part of a community's very existence. A football club can play a key role in defining a community's identity in...

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