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Proposed Bill to Eliminate Indonesia’s Direct Elections Puts Price on Democracy

September 24, 2014

By Andrew Thornley

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

In what is yet another significant twist in this fascinating election year in Indonesia, the country’s national legislature (DPR) will vote today on a hastily cobbled bill that aims to eliminate over 500 direct local elections. Following heralded national elections in April and July and a decade of direct local elections, this bill has surfaced like a sudden malady afflicting Indonesia’s electoral democracy. Here is a brief diagnosis of this disorder as well as a prognosis for recovery.

Indonesia elections

Just a month ahead of President-elect Joko Widodo’s inauguration, a new bill is threatening to eliminate over 500 direct local elections. Photo/Flickr user Ikhlasul Amal

Five of the six political parties that backed losing candidate Prabowo Subianto in the July presidential election, which are organized for now under the Red-and-White Coalition, sprung the new bill this month in the wake of his electoral defeat. The bill proposes that the country’s 34 governors as well as more than 500 district heads and mayors no longer be directly elected but be indirectly elected by the legislative bodies at the corresponding provincial, district, and municipal levels. The government first proposed a local elections bill in 2012, but the prospect of indirect elections, when raised, was only ever mooted for the provincial or district/municipal level.

This represents an about-face by all of the coalition parties when compared to their positions prior to the presidential election. But cracks are emerging: Partai Demokrat, which supported Prabowo’s presidential bid but has remained independent of the opposition coalition, last week pledged conditional support for direct local elections and Golkar is hardly a picture of unity. The four parties who support President-elect Joko Widodo (Jokowi) support direct elections.

And there is the matter of inelegance. This bill is being pushed by legislators who have one foot out the door. The current DPR ends its term on September 30, and fewer than 44 percent of current members will be returning in October.

It is hard not to view this bill as a blunt political manoeuver to return electoral authority from the people to party leadership in the face of electoral defeat in the presidential election, as a show of unity and force by a new opposition coalition in advance of Jokowi’s October inauguration, and as an example of Jakarta’s elites pushing back against what they see as local upstarts, one of whom has just been elected president.

Numerous arguments have been put forth by the Red-and-White Coalition in favor of this bill, the most significant of which are: cost, corruption, conflict, and constituent interests.

Cost. Gerindra’s vice chairman, Fadli Zon, argues that eliminating direct elections could save up to 60 trillion Rupiah over a five-year cycle. With this, Indonesia now has a price on its democracy. However, a Constitutional Court ruling in January 2014 mandating simultaneous national elections in 2019 and broad party support for simultaneous local elections will already significantly reduce the cost of electoral administration. And this should be put into perspective: Americans, for example, spend a lot on elections, but spend more on Halloween. Indonesia spends approximately 276 trillion Rupiah each year to subsidize fuel prices, and yet no party has proposed a firm plan to reduce this most important of fiscal burdens.

Corruption. Widespread electoral corruption and prosecution of approximately 300 directly elected regional heads over the past 10 years has been held up as proof that the direct system breeds corruption. Fair enough that vote-buying and broader corruption are a problem. But in this case the finger is pointed in the wrong direction. Red-and-White Coalition parties are, at the very least, equally complicit in electoral corruption. Combatting corruption at the local level requires commitment to improving candidate recruitment, promoting transparency in campaign expenditure and the vote count, establishing effective avenues to follow-up citizen reports about money politics and impose stiff sanctions against those found to have violated the law, and comprehensively reforming political party financing. These are all measures that party leaders themselves could mandate through legislation and self-regulation, should they wish to exercise genuine commitment to reform.

Conflict. The bill’s proponents suggest that direct local elections have led to violence and conflict. Reputable studies refute this claim. In 2010, the International Crisis Group concluded that over 90 percent of local elections were peaceful and that conflict during local elections could be prevented with “better organization.” A recent – and still draft – World Bank analysis concludes that direct local elections have contributed to an overall reduction in violence across the five-year electoral cycle, despite the fact that small spikes occasionally appear around election time.

Constituent interests. There is undeniable irony when the directly elected Red-White members of the DPR argue that directly elected legislatures can “suitably represent” their constituents in determining regional heads, while they – through this bill – ignore what a clear majority of Indonesia’s voters and elected regional heads say they want. Several surveys suggest a strong majority of Indonesians support direct elections at all levels. A new forthcoming Asia Foundation/Polling Center survey of 2,871 respondents in six provinces revealed that 90 percent of respondents support direct local elections. Apkasi and Apeksi, the Associations of Indonesia’s district heads and mayors, respectively, have both come out in strong support of direct elections.

And so, what next? The outcome – which, as of writing, is uncertain – is hugely significant for Indonesia’s democratic consolidation as well as for political constellations and contestations going forward.

Should this bill pass as is, the winners will be the string-pullers of Indonesia’s larger parties – inside and outside of the Red-and-White Coalition – since they will dominate the process of indirect elections throughout the country. Coalitions at the national level do not always translate outside of Jakarta, meaning that it is too simplistic to argue that this bill would strengthen Red-and-White Coalition consolidation at the local level. And all bets are off for any benefits accruing to smaller parties, including those within the Red-and-White Coalition, who will face difficultly championing candidates through regional legislative bodies. More broadly, this will see Indonesia return to a more – dare I say – “guided” democracy. In such a scenario, a civil society coalition is certain to file a judicial review with the Constitutional Court arguing that the law violates Indonesians’ constitutional rights. Either way, this is a taste of things to come. The Coalition promises more legislative activism.

Should the bill not pass – or pass amended to allow for direct elections – this will represent a victory not only for 190 million voters but also for Indonesia’s civil society. An array of civil society organizations has led debate and protests nationwide and driven the media narrative on this issue, while netizens have campaigned in the tens of thousands with one online petition receiving over 50,000 signatures. This would demonstrate that Indonesia’s democracy has a strong immune system, bolstered by a public with a taste for the ballot box and one that increasingly demands government accountability.

Editor’s note: This version has been edited slightly from the original.

Andrew Thornley is a program director for The Asia Foundation in Indonesia. He can be reached at [email protected]

Related locations: Indonesia
Related programs: Elections, Good Governance, Law and Justice
Related topics: Civic Spaces, Corruption

1 Comment

  1. This is an excellent article, laying out the interests and players in a gripping political drama. Indonesia is the shining star of democracy in southeast Asia; the country that could; the country that got it right while all around them struggled. Its visionary leaders, men and women who emerged from the murk of the authoritarian New Order like B.J. Habibe, Gus Dur, Megawati Sukarnoputri and SBY were never perfect, but each in their own way took risks, pushed the envelope, and moved democracy in Indonesia in a positive direction. They farmed in fertile fields, and from their labor has grown a new generation of local leaders broadly recognised in Indonesia, and in the region, as superb.

    The best of these leaders are viewed almost as rock stars (one was just elected President). As they aggressively tackle the problems of urban governance in a complex environment, their expertise is increasingly sought by other countries in the region. This explosion in effective leadership was made possible by the shift from appointed to elected leaders in 2005.

    Now I wake this morning to learn that the last, lame-duck remnants of the New Order have passed this bill late in the night, against the wishes of more than 90% of Indonesian voters. This is the first major misstep in Indonesia’s democratic transition, but hopefully this will be just a small bump in the road, overturned by the new President or the new DPR, or the people themselves in a democratic referendum.

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