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Nine Takeaways from Indonesia’s Legislative Elections

April 16, 2014

Indonesia’s legislative elections on April 9 confirmed some well-established assumptions but also produced a few surprises. On the basis of quick count results, media reports, and independent election observation, here are nine key takeaways from these elections:

  1. There are more winners than losers among the political parties. The PDI-P won for the first time since 1999. Five of the other eight parties currently represented at the national parliament also gained votes compared to elections five years ago, and two others received similar tallies to 2009 (with one of these, the Prosperous Justice Party, or PKS, confounding predictions of a poor showing). The new party NasDem comfortably exceeded the 3.5 percent threshold of the national vote that allows it to sit in the national parliament. Only one party – Partai Demokrat, the vehicle of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, which was hit by a run of high-profile corruption scandals since 2011 – lost significant ground compared to 2009. Two small parties, the PBB and PKPI, were not expected to pass the threshold for national representation, and they didn’t.
  2. Pundits can be wrong. The conventional wisdom prior to elections was that a reduced field of only 12 parties competing at the national level (from 38 parties in 2009) and a higher parliamentary threshold, raised to 3.5 percent from 2.5 percent at the last elections, would lead to fewer parties gaining seats in the national parliament. Based on quick count results, it appears that the number of parties in parliament will now rise from nine to 10. And then there was the widely hyped “Jokowi effect.” Many observers believed that the nomination of Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo (commonly known as Jokowi) as a presidential candidate only two weeks prior to these elections would translate into significant gains for his PDI-P party at the national level. PDI-P won, but there was no noticeable “Jokowi effect.” Pundits can redeem themselves by explaining the extent to which this was the result of a late nomination, flawed surveying prior to the elections, or voters not strongly associating presidential candidates with the legislative elections.
  3. The stars of these elections were the candidates and not the political parties. Surveys prior to the elections as well as anecdotal evidence during the campaign and on election day confirm that Indonesians were more likely to vote based on specific candidate attributes than on the party affiliation of the candidates. This in some way explains the fragmented vote among parties. Recent surveys have also revealed low levels of trust in political parties in general. Parties have work to do to regain the interest and faith of Indonesia’s voters.
  4. Coalitions of convenience” will color upcoming presidential elections. No single party won at least 25 percent of the national vote – or will win at least 20 percent of the seats –that would allow it to nominate a presidential candidate alone for the upcoming July presidential election. As such, coalitions are inevitable. With weakly defined platforms, there is no ideological magnetism drawing parties together. Seven of the 10 parties likely to win seats in the next parliament have each done so with between 5-10 percent of the national vote, and every one of these will be confident in its bargaining position – vis-à-vis the three largest vote getters as well as each other – as coalitions are cobbled together. The resulting demands and rewards will be interesting to follow.
  5. Indonesia’s civil society organizations (CSOs) played a vital role in improving the overall quality of elections. They fielded thousands of volunteer independent observers across the country and have reported extensive findings (as well as inspired lots of tweets and Facebook posts about vote buying). This is even more important given that, for the first time since 1999, there were no officially accredited international observers. Further, Indonesia’s CSOs have driven innovation in voter information as well as community action through voter education. I was in South Sulawesi on election day, and heard inspiring stories from marginalized women trained by the NGO Solidaritas Perempuan (Women’s Solidarity) to reject vote buying, patrol their neighborhoods to deter violations, and demand more of their legislative candidates and elected officials.
  6. Vote buying and electoral fraud remains a malignant feature of elections. Independent observer organization Jaringan Pendidikan Pemilih untuk Rakyat reported cases of vote buying at over 30 percent of locations observed in 25 provinces, and Indonesia Corruption Watch received 300 public complaints about vote buying. There are still concerns about the potential for fraud in the vote counting process, given that the official count takes place over one month and involves aggregation of data at several different administrative levels prior to the national tally. Without a clear commitment to prevent and prosecute cases of electoral corruption, these continue to jeopardize the integrity of Indonesia’s elections. The performance of the Election Supervisory Body (Bawaslu) in ensuring that violators receive appropriate sanctions will be an important barometer of overall election management performance.
  7. Don’t underestimate Indonesia’s voters. Voter turnout has been in decline for 15 years, and many predicted that turnout would decline further this election. Rather, polling suggests that turnout has risen from 71 percent in 2009 to around 73 percent this year. Surveys suggest there is still strong support for elections (and democracy in general) in Indonesia. The National Election Commission (KPU) deserves credit for vastly improving voter registration and – along with a variety of leading civil society organizations, in particular – in conducting widespread voter information.
  8. Indonesia’s overseas voters remain a significant but under-represented constituency. While the KPU officially registered approximately 2 million overseas voters for these legislative elections, prominent NGO Migrant Care estimates the actual figure to be closer to 6.5 million. Some candidates from the one South Jakarta electoral district that represents all overseas voters made efforts to engage overseas voters. But initial data suggest that less than 50 percent of the low-balled official figure of registered overseas voters cast their ballot this year, despite the availability – for the first time – of early voting (from March 30 – April 6) for Indonesians abroad.
  9. As with politics in general, elections are best examined from a local perspective. Perhaps nowhere is this clearer than in Aceh province, which has experienced unacceptably high levels of voter intimidation and electoral violence in several districts over the past couple of months. Independent observers are boldly playing their part in reporting findings and urging action, but fears remain of an escalation of conflict once the official results are declared next month. Any short-term solution must include effective law enforcement.

Once the vote count is confirmed and seats allocated in May, more important aspects of the election will emerge, including how women candidates have fared, the campaign promises and finances of those elected to office, and the political deals struck at the party level in advance of Indonesia’s July presidential elections.

Andrew Thornley is a program director for The Asia Foundation in Indonesia. He can be reached at andrew.thornley@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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One comment on this post:

  1. Very nice summary of a lot of useful information — thanks, Andrew!

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