JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia's political parties are turning to high-yielding rice seeds to woo an agriculture-based electorate in this year's parliamentary and presidential elections.
Rice isn't just an important part of Indonesian cuisine -- Indonesians say you haven't eaten unless your meal includes rice -- it's also embedded in the cultural consciousness in a land of 226 million people.
Two out of every five people in the 108 million-strong labor force works in the agricultural sector.
Megawati Sukarnoputri's PDI-P party has launched its own variety of "MSP" rice: that stands for "Mari Sejahterakan Petani" or "let's improve the welfare of farmers," but it's no coincidence those are the initials of the former president.
MSP has a yield of up to 12 tons per hectare, according to PDIP's website, compared with 5 tons for normal varieties.
"These seeds are a contribution from PDI-P to Indonesia's farmers," said Pramono Anung, PDI-P's secretary general, according to the party website, while he was campaigning last week in Blitar, East Java.
Blitar, a PDI-P stronghold, is where Megawati's father, the late first president Soekarno, is buried.
Not to be outdone in the political battle for farmers, a group of supporters of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, well ahead of Megawati in the opinion polls, has developed Supertoy rice, which also yields 12 tons per hectare.
Former Suharto-era general Prabowo Subianto of the Gerindra Party is also focusing on farmers: he's head of Indonesia's farmers' association.
While Prabowo's party hasn't developed its own form of political rice, during his campaigning he has encouraged the public to buy local agriculture produce.
Gerindra's programs include creating 2 million hectares of additional farmland to boost food output and building a new fertilizer plant with production capacity of 4 million tons a year to meet domestic demand.
Southeast Asia's biggest democracy holds parliamentary elections on April 9. The polls will determine which parties can field candidates for presidential elections on July 8. [nJAK426874]
With a parliamentary threshold of 2.5 percent and thousands of candidates from 38 different political parties fighting for 560 seats in parliament, competition is expected to be intense.
"People will choose candidates who they think have seriously worked for the people," said Soetrisno Bachir, chairman of the PAN Party, who dismissed the high-yield rice as a gimmick.
PAN has not developed its own rice variety, but it requires its candidates to draw up programs to help farmers and fishermen, including the distribution of free rice seeds and setting up of cooperatives, Bachir said.
"Whether the new rice varieties turn out to be a success or not, it will not increase electability of a party," said Sunny Tanuwidjaja, political analyst of Jakarta-based think-tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.
He said the move is unlikely to increase the popularity of political parties because voters are more interested in the parties' actual programs and performance.
Even some farmers seem unimpressed by the politicking.
Despite having a good harvest with MSP rice, 55-year-old Jali, a rice farmer in Blitar, said he was not sure whether he would choose PDI-P party in this election.
"I don't really care about it. Politicians will forget us when they win the election," Jali said.
Another farmer, Maslikah, 45, said she would vote for PDI-P but probably would give MSP a miss after half her harvest failed.
Additional reporting by Dimas Aro in BLITAR; Editing by Sara Webb and Jerry Norton