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Indonesia’s 2009 Legislative Elections: Don’t Step Backwards

April 8, 2009

How to define a “good” election? Obviously everyone wants a peaceful, free, and fair election process. To strengthen accountability and make sure voters know what choices they have, they must also have sufficient information about the candidates in order to be able to make an informed choice on Election Day.

In Indonesia, the big question everyone is asking is: What will happen on April 9, when 171 million registered voters head to polling stations to elect representatives to the two houses of the national parliament, as well as their provincial and district legislatures?

The mood for these elections – Indonesia’s third legislative election since the fall of Soeharto in 1998 – is somewhere between disinterest and disappointment. This is largely due to the essential criteria for a good election, as set out above, not being achieved. The courts are likely to be inundated with complaints from aggrieved candidates on administrative and organizational problems in the immediate aftermath of the election. The Constitutional Court is preparing to adjudicate up to 2,000 cases in the 30-day period allowed for all cases to be resolved.

These candidates’ complaints, justified or not, will weaken the already precarious reputation of the General Election Commission (KPU), the body charged with organizing elections, and damage its ability to administer credible elections in the future. Such a situation would be a serious setback for Indonesia, acclaimed internationally as a democratic success story, and a country which set itself a high benchmark to live up to during the 2004 elections.

So what has gone wrong? As far as some of the disinterest is concerned, a positive perspective may be that after five years of a fairly competent government, voters are not as motivated to see change as they were in 2004. Voters in 2004 had just experienced a fractious parliament which ousted one president and had endured a government that seemingly turned a blind eye to rampant corruption.

However, now a strong sense of confusion about how the elections will work has added to the disappointment. The complexity of the system – for example, working out how votes will be turned into seats, an essential element in any electoral system – means that few people understand the relationship between their vote and the declared winners. This is something that could lead to popular discord on Election Day.

Weeks of negative media coverage about the KPU have contributed to its poor reputation. Reports focus on the problems it faces in carrying out basic tasks, including printing ballot papers, ensuring a uniform quality to these papers, distributing materials to the polling stations, and ensuring that election officials are properly informed and trained to carry out their duties.

Voter registration lists with serious errors have also emerged as a major source of concern. This problem originates in the poor quality of population data sent to the KPU by the government. A lack of resources and time meant that the lists were never effectively checked or revised in many districts. The perception of poor quality voter lists has been further exacerbated by questions that keep arising from the gubernatorial election held in East Java in 2008. For many, the official reaction to these questions – a down-playing of the issue – seems to suggest there is at best a lack of will to address such problems seriously.

The result of all this is that the management of the elections appears disorderly or chaotic. Much of the blame will be laid at the door of the KPU. However, the KPU’s weaknesses must be seen within a wider context; problems can actually be traced back to the process of selecting and appointing KPU commissioners, as well as the relationship between commissioners and the KPU’s permanent staff, issues of funding, and the time available to organize the elections.

Another challenge that the KPU faces when organizing the election is the low profile and participation of civil society. In 2004 however, the deployment of hundreds of thousands of independent election observers to monitor all aspects of pre-election and Election Day activities provided reassurance to voters that the process was running well.

Unfortunately, for these elections, the number of observers to be deployed to the half-million polling stations is still unknown, and their absence from the pre-election period reduces confidence that nothing untoward has taken place or will take place. An absence of election observers at the vote count, expected to go on until late in the night, will further weaken confidence that votes are being counted accurately. This will be of particular importance for these elections as, for the first time, candidates will be openly competing with candidates from their own party as much as from other parties, as a result of the now fully open-list, multi-member constituency voting system being used.

Also, the lack of civil society participation in these elections means that despite the potential ability of the new voting system to elect more popular and better qualified representatives, this hope is not being realized. There are almost no civil society groups able to organize activities such as candidate debates and questionnaires that would make critical information available to voters to help them decide who to vote for. Instead, candidates are going out of their way to publicize their candidacy with colorful posters, banners, and stickers that, despite some of the wit and creativity displayed, tell voters nothing about what they will do if elected.

No one should have any doubt about Indonesia’s ability to hold high-quality elections. For the future, what is required is an open and participatory environment in which all players with an interest in elections work to support the goal of high-quality elections. Indonesia has made remarkable progress over the last 10 years. Its leaders should be proud of this achievement and hope to carry this legacy forward. This would be a far better course for Indonesia to choose rather than following in the footsteps of the many stalled democracies in the region.

Jeremy Gross is The Asia Foundation’s Election Program Manager in Indonesia. He can be reached at jeremy@tafindo.org. For more on Indonesia’s elections, The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Indonesia, Robin Bush, discusses the loss of momentum for the Prosperous Justice party (PKS), the country’s most orthodox Islamic political party, in the Financial Times.

View all posts by Jeremy Gross

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