In The News

Is the Party Over for Indonesia’s Political Parties?

July 25, 2012

The Jakarta gubernatorial election on July 11 was arguably Indonesia’s single most important ballot before the 2014 presidential polls. With high stakes for the parties jockeying for a win, the race saw political heavyweights vying for the attention of the city’s 7 million voters. Pundits armed with pre-election surveys and knowledge of the political parties backing the incumbent’s nomination confidently predicted that Governor Fauzi Bowo would easily hold on to power.

Jakarta elections

Polling station officials set up a ballot box on Tidung Island, part of the Thousand Islands municipality off the North Jakarta coast.

Yet, as exit poll numbers trickled in, discussions quickly shifted to how Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi), an “outsider” and popular mayor of Solo in Central Java, seemed to have snatched first place. Now, pundits are wondering whether what happened in Jakarta is a proxy for the 2014 elections for president and parliament of the world’s third-largest democracy. Is it possible a new face will gain the people’s trust to fill the country’s top office? And what role will political parties play in the race?

The Jakarta election won’t necessarily help us predict who Indonesia’s next president will be, but it solidified the narrative around how Indonesian voters feel about politics and political parties. The Jakarta election confirmed long-established knowledge: political parties are less and less relevant to Indonesian voters. Data from electoral surveys around the 1999, 2004, and 2009 elections show parties have increasingly lost the trust of voters, despite the strong support they enjoyed immediately after the fall of Suharto in 1998 and the start of the reformasi era.

At the dawn of Indonesia’s democracy, almost 90 percent of voters identified themselves with one of the many emergent political parties. The public welcomed a diverse range of political parties after decades of having no outlet under Suharto’s political repression. By 2009, however, less than 20 percent of Indonesians identified themselves with a political party. Curiously, even voters who identify with a particular party remain independent when casting their ballot; Jakarta’s exit polls showed those voting for the forerunner were not only from the two parties that nominated him, but also from voters from other parties, which, according to the exit poll, lost nearly one-third of their votes to Jokowi. This is a replay of the 2009 presidential election, which saw parties outside those that nominated President Yudhoyono losing between 35 to 60 percent of their voters to him. Put simply, party identification has little predictive value on which candidate voters will choose.

With the 2014 elections on the horizon, parties are facing an uphill battle to prove that they are relevant and win back the trust of voters. Meanwhile, political parties have consistently ranked among the least trusted public institutions and, according to a survey released last month, the House of Representatives was considered the most corrupt from a list of state institutions. Sitting members are widely perceived as distant, self-serving, and more interested in political horse-trading than the aspirations of citizens. Reversing this antipathy will be contingent upon members’ individual performance in delivering good policies and keeping their reputation intact. They will also need to show more responsiveness and accountability to their constituencies.

Admittedly, this accountability deficit is partly a symptom of the nature of the House itself. Once in parliament, legislators are ensconced in one of the House’s various commissions, and focus on issues that, while important, are not always directly relevant to the concerns of their local electorate. While it may be a problem faced by legislators in other democracies, the end result in Indonesia is, for now, a fickle electorate that does not hold political parties in high esteem.

By 2014, Indonesian voters will have participated in four general elections and three direct presidential elections since reformasi – not to mention the hundreds of local elections held across the archipelago since 2005. By many accounts, Indonesia has now graduated from a democratizing country to, simply, a democracy. But it is important to reflect on when and how we can expect one of the most important democratic institutions to mature. If the first round of the Jakarta election is any guide to how the 2014 polls will play out, then the message is clear. Candidates will not be able to rely on their nominating parties to increase their chances of winning. Regrettably, the opposite is more likely to be the case. Given the weakness of the party system, political parties will continue to depend on appealing candidates to stand any chance of capturing support.

In fact, such a pattern can be seen in every election since the fall of Suharto. The Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) topped the polls in 1999, with 33.7 percent of the vote, largely on the back of Megawati Soekarnoputri’s popularity. PDI-P’s share of the vote plummeted to 18.5 percent five years later, when she fell out of favor with the electorate. Similarly, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party captured only 7.5 percent of the vote in 2004, before climbing to 20.9 percent in 2009, due to the perceived strength of Yudhoyono’s leadership.

Reflecting on the Jakarta polls, this instability looks set to continue. Deepening the political discourse and decreasing the reliance on the charisma of individual leaders will not be easy. But until parties can show that they are relevant and accountable to the Indonesian electorate, they will not be able to bank on consistent support from voters.

Sandra Hamid is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Indonesia. She can be reached at shamid@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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