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In Indonesia, Decentralization and Direct Elections Two Sides of the Same Coin

October 1, 2014

By Sandra Hamid

Last week, Indonesians woke up to the news that in the dead of night the parliament voted for a bill that would end direct elections for over 500 local-level political offices (mayors, district and sub-district governors), and replace them with an indirect selection process in regional parliaments. Since then, the country has been engaged by the decision, and civil society groups have readied themselves to put the bill through a judicial review process, and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has announced plans to challenge the bill by issuing an emergency presidential decree which could potentially bring the regional elections back to life at least for several months.

Indonesia direct elections

One year after the introduction of direct presidential elections, Indonesians gained the right to directly elect their local leaders for both provincial and district level governments. Since then, direct elections have been held in more than 500 areas across the country. Photo/Flickr user Khlasul Amal

The decision seems to be dramatically at odds with current public opinion polling, which indicates that more than 80 percent of Indonesians support direct elections. The decision also has implications for Indonesia in the long term, and civil society and others have reacted fiercely as they see the bill as an affront to good governance, to bringing the government closer to the people, and to devolving power from the center to the regions. It is, in short, a setback to strengthening Indonesia’s democracy in post-Soeharto’s Indonesia.

Almost immediately after Soeharto’s 32-year presidency came to an end in 1998, Indonesia passed a historic bill that devolved the power of the center to the regions. The center’s tight control over the regions was one of the most important features in Soeharto’s New Order. The impact that this control had on the lives of those in far-away places has been the subject of analysis by economists, political scientists, and anthropologists since the 1970s. They mostly agreed that an overly powerful center made downward accountability difficult. Devolving the power from the center was therefore top on the reform agenda. Politicians embraced it; doing otherwise would have been political suicide. Euphoria for an open and democratic Indonesia was the engine behind the decentralization bill. Discussion at the time was not on whether or not devolving the government was necessary – but rather on how low or high governing power should be devolved. Through debate, Indonesians settled the matter and since then, decentralization in this complex nation of more than 200 million people has largely been seen as success story.

Following this initial phase of decentralization, Indonesia has continued to strengthen the structure of its young democracy. In 2004, through a historic amendment to the constitution, Indonesians for the first time secured the right to directly elect their president. They went to the polls and put Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in power, not just once, but twice. SBY is the first president after Soeharto’s 32-year authoritarian government to stay in power for two full terms. One year after the introduction of direct presidential elections, Indonesians gained the right to directly elect their local leaders for both provincial and district level governments. Since then, direct elections have been held in more than 500 areas across the country.

Direct elections are a huge undertaking in any country, but particularly so in Indonesia which is made up of over 13,000 islands. Nevertheless, being able to put in office politicians of their choosing is clearly a priority for Indonesians. And in many cases, those politicians do not come from the political parties they voted for in legislative elections. President Yudhoyono is a prime example of this. In 2009, the president’s voters did not come only from voters of his political party but from those who voted for other parties. The same happened in the victory of Joko Widodo in the 2012 Jakarta gubernatorial race when his opponent controlled 77 percent of seats in the local parliament, but won only 43 percent of popular votes. This demonstrates voter preference for individuals over parties.

At the heart of decentralization is a commitment to bring government closer to citizens. Direct election paves the way for stronger accountability of government officials. No longer driven by Jakarta’s politics alone, they are expected to prioritize the needs of those who put them in office. Voters are able to identify those who have served them well, and reward them with their vote in the next race. Or the other way around. Direct elections are seen as a mechanism to enhance democratic accountability, and reward or punish elected officials based on their performance.

In Indonesia, decentralization and direct local elections are two sides of the same coin. The former becomes more relevant because of the latter. To date direct elections have produced healthy competition among local governments. Local politicians prove themselves by making important breakthroughs in the way they govern. Civil society, national media, and the central government encourage innovations and construct various ways to recognize successful local leaders, and their success stories inspire local officials in other provinces. And so the country has been moving forward with innovative leaders, born out of a combination of decentralization and direct local elections. The much-celebrated mayors of Surabaya, Bogor, and Bandung, as well as the governor of Central Java, are among the recent examples of the best crop of local leaders that have come out of a combination of decentralization and direct elections. This is what the reformasi movement, which was spearheaded by students and civil society in 1998, has brought to the new Indonesia.

Although they are frequent critics of the quality of elections, it is now hardly surprising that the staunchest objections over last week’s decision are coming from civil society. On the one hand, they fully understand that plenty of work needs to be done to improve local governance, that election-related corruption is still rampant, and that accountability is still problematic. Many of them know there is still much to be done before decentralization and direct elections can deliver more effectively. On the other hand, they are firm in their belief that the clock should not be turned backward. To scrap direct local elections, as one popular poster reads, is to “rob the political rights of the people.” Decentralization needs direct elections and together with other key institutions built post 1999, they are the building blocks of Indonesia’s democracy.

Sandra Hamid is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Indonesia. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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