The death of direct Pilkada and the blame game

Puspa D. Amri

The Jakarta Post

Long Beach, California

Jakarta, posted: Tue, September 30, 2014 | 11:15 am

Over the last few days the public has thrown a barrage of complaints and sharp criticism targeting President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and House of Representative members from his Democratic Party, both of whom are currently in lame-duck status.

Both in print and social media, concerned citizens have expressed their upset with the party'€™s lawmakers'€™ decision to walk out of the vote at the House'€™s plenary session to pass the controversial regional election (Pilkada) bill on Thursday.

The bill, endorsed with a final vote of 226 to 135, thanks to the Democrats'€™ abstention, will remove the direct elections for governors, regents and mayors that have characterized Indonesian democracy since 2005.

Although the system has its imperfections, one can make the case that one of its key achievements is that it has allowed strong and popular local figures like Joko '€œJokowi'€ Widodo to rise to the national stage and inspire millions of Indonesians to believe that upward mobility is possible in this country.

Citizens are understandably angry with the party'€™s move as initially it had pledged to maintain direct regional elections. The party withdrew from the voting because no faction supported its bid to add a 10-point condition for streamlining direct regional elections.

Given that the overwhelming majority of Indonesians (more than 80 percent according to a survey conducted by the Indonesian Survey Circle or LSI) support the direct election of regional leaders by the people, this widespread anger in the aftermath of the House vote is not surprising. In fact, I have never seen such an implosion of '€œhashtag activism'€ from Indonesian friends and acquaintances since the presidential election in July 2014, when the animosity between supporters of candidates was at its highest.

Truthfully, it is rather amusing to watch #shameonyouSBY go viral on the Internet. The creative images and ironic internet memes that accompany the tweets are equally entertaining. A meme that grabbed my attention was one with a
tongue-in-cheek message pushing for bachelors to hurry up and find a partner before the regional legislative council (DPRD) chooses one for him or her ('€œYang Masih Jomblo Buruan Cari Pacar, Jangan Sampai Dipilihin DPRD'€).

While the 11-hour political maneuvering in the face of the House vote on the Pilkada bill was definitely not laudable, what many seem to overlook is that the walkout was merely an enabler.

Let us not forget who sponsored the draft legislation in the first place. Let us take note of how quickly the draft bill worked its way into the Byzantine Indonesian legislative process and was tabled for a vote.

If my memory serves me right, it was these so-called '€œdignitaries'€, members of the House that we have elected to represent us, who proposed the bill in the first place. Let'€™s not forget either which parties within the House fought the hardest to get this law passed.

Several commentators have suggested that the political drama last Thursday could mark a start of a series of reprisals from the Red-and-White Coalition, members of which came out on the losing side of the 2014 presidential election but hold a majority in the House today and in the incoming five-year term that begins on Oct. 1.

I am not here to participate in the blame game, but only to try to remind all of us who are deeply concerned by this political development. The country'€™s political system provides a tool for '€œpolitical retaliation'€ by virtue of democracy.

Democracy is hardly a perfect system of governing modern societies, but one feature it does have is that it empowers citizens with the ability to reward good leaders and punish bad ones. Make a careful note of the parties that delivered the death of direct Pilkada and make sure you remember this when the next election comes around.

It'€™s been noted that Indonesians are not as interested in voting in the legislative elections compared to presidential elections. If anything, the passage of the bill that eliminates direct regional elections should remind us that our choice of legislative members matter substantially. Consider the inconsistency: about 80 percent of Indonesians support direct election of regional heads, yet 62 percent of House members whom we have elected to represent our political aspirations voted to end direct Pilkada.

Indonesia has come a long way on the road to democratization and economic reform since it reached its nadir point in 1998. Yet there is no instant gratification when it comes to making democracy work.

For it to deliver its promise, it must meet a number of prerequisites: an informed electorate, free and fair elections and well-functioning institutions that operate based on a transparent and clearly-defined set of rules.

We'€™re still miles away from achieving good scores on those points and this is something that we need to remind ourselves daily.

The removal of direct regional elections is indeed a setback, but not one that cannot be overcome. We still live in a democracy and we wield the power to punish leaders for their actions that run counter to the aspirations of their constituents. Use your vote wisely next time.

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The writer is a post-doctoral research associate at the Claremont Institute for Economic Policy Studies and a lecturer at California State University, Long Beach.

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