IN ASIA

Weekly Insights and Analysis

Indonesia’s Local Elections: High Drama and Humdrum

December 9, 2015

By Andrew Thornley

Just under 100 million Indonesians were eligible to vote in Wednesday’s local elections for nine governors, 224 district heads, and 36 mayors as well as their deputies. Overall, this represents elections for about half of the country’s districts and municipalities and a quarter of the provinces.

Just under 100 million Indonesians were eligible to vote in Wednesday's local elections for nine governors, 224 district heads, and 36 mayors as well as their deputies.

Just under 100 million Indonesians were eligible to vote in Wednesday’s local elections for nine governors, 224 district heads, and 36 mayors as well as their deputies.

On the heels of critically important national elections in Indonesia last year, as well as historic elections in neighboring Myanmar last month, these may not qualify as “flair elections.” But they do reflect the remarkable scale, evolution, and innovation – as well as the residual flaws – of Indonesia’s electoral process. Perhaps the most significant aspect of these elections is that they are happening at all.

Here’s a quick overview:

Just happy to be here. One year ago, legislative maneuvering resulted in the dramatic elimination of all direct local elections. Only a concerted advocacy campaign by civil society resulted in the political volte-face required to ensure a reversal of that legislation. Given this backdrop, quibbles about logistics, ballot designs, and polling station preparation in the weeks before these elections have felt almost reassuring.

That’s the ticket? While there is the odd standout candidate, such as Tri Rismaharini (the incumbent mayor in Surabaya), the overall crop of contestants has failed to impress. Prominent civil society organization (CSO) Perludem has noted that just seven percent of all candidates are women, arguably reflecting the increasing challenges that women across Indonesia face in contesting positions of elected leadership.

Corruption, again. Equally significant is the familiar specter of election corruption. Another CSO, Indonesia Corruption Watch, has drawn attention to former graft convicts who have been allowed back into the electoral arena on the basis of a controversial decision by the Constitutional Court earlier this year. Fifteen percent of candidate pairs include at least one incumbent. While this may suggest experience, such experience has, on occasion, included the abuse of public funds and facilities in electoral campaigns. There is also the curious phenomenon of the calon boneka (“dummy candidate”) – those allegedly paid to contest to give the illusion of a competitive election where other candidates may not be forthcoming.

Competition anxiety. Candidate registration had to be extended in several areas where no contestants registered by the original cut off date. Purchasing power, pragmatism, and politics are largely to blame for this. The high costs of campaigning, not to mention the “investment” that must often be paid to political parties to secure their endorsement, are a deterrent. In some regions, incumbents are undeniably high performing and popular, leaving little incentive to would-be contenders to waste the time and money on a campaign. Alternatively, in some cases, parties reportedly colluded to prevent any contestants from challenging powerful incumbents in the hope that elections would be postponed and the incumbent replaced by a government-appointed caretaker. As it stands, today’s elections will include contests in three districts – Blitar in East Java, Tasikmalaya in West Java, and Timor Tengah Utara in NTT – in which there is only one unopposed ticket. While the General Elections Commission (KPU) wanted to postpone these elections, the Constitutional Court ruled that they should proceed, using a modified ballot asking voters if they agreed to the candidate pair in question. Should the nays outweigh the yeas, the election will be postponed until the next round in 2017.

No complaints, please. After Indonesia’s first local elections in 2005, it fast became the norm for losing candidates to appeal the results to the Constitutional Court – regardless of the merits of their case. Eighty percent of the hundreds of local elections held since 2005 have ended up at the court. To staunch the flow of frivolous appeals, the Constitutional Court ruled in October that now only contestants who lose by less than between 0.5 and 2 percent (depending on the size of the electorate in that electoral district) are eligible to appeal their cases. Such a tight margin of victory is unlikely, particularly since one-third of these elections only involve two candidate tickets. Score one for efficiency. But questions have been raised as to whether this restriction on appeals could provoke electoral conflict in some regions.

Lowering the threshold. Previously, the winning threshold for local elections was 30 percent of votes cast (50 percent in the capital, Jakarta). When no candidate pair passed that threshold, the two top tickets contested a second round. The 2015 local elections law did away with this two-round system, with winners based now on a simple plurality of votes. Score one more for efficiency.

Elections 3.0. The social media election phenomenon I blogged about last year has continued. Surging use of social media, tighter KPU regulations on offline campaigning, and burgeoning innovations are encouraging online campaigns as well as open data to promote voter engagement and electoral transparency. The KPU hosted its first-ever app challenge to encourage the development of voter information apps and launched an online portal for filing public information requests. The Surabaya municipal election commission launched its own app this year and funded its own app challenge. Civil society, meanwhile, are expanding on innovative efforts in 2014 to crowd source election observer reporting, such as via Kawal Pilkada and Mata Massa.

Quickly deriving lessons and achieving positive reforms from these local elections will be important. Ninety-nine more local elections – including highly significant elections in Jakarta and Aceh – are scheduled for February 2017.

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 or its funders.

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