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The election for the Jakarta governor has somehow improved public faith in direct local elections as a democratic procedure.
Twice-elected mayor of Surakarta Joko “Jokowi” Widodo topped the first-round poll by a decisive margin. Running for the governorship as a reformist outsider, he has very strong anticorruption credentials as well as a record of being an effective local leader. Jakarta voters have been praised for being able to spot a good, clean leader.
The voters have also been credited with being rational, independent and fluid. The use of ethnic sentiment, patron-client loyalty, clientelist politics and massive public campaigning to improve pencitraan (superficial brand imaging) seems no longer to be effective in the country’s capital city. No wonder that Jakarta has been commended for achieving such democratic maturity.
One must keep in mind that what happened in Jakarta’s election, however, is rooted in the fact that the capital city is the most prosperous part of Indonesia. It has the highest human development index. Despite the presence of socioeconomic inequalities, its voters are dominated by a highly educated and independent middle class.
Unfortunately, these characteristics remain elusive in the other 32 provinces and 491 regencies/mayoralties. But, the system (or more precisely, the procedure) of direct local election has been implemented as a one-size-fits-all mechanism across sub-national entities throughout the country.
The outcome of the recent Jakarta election is a welcome surprise amid the increasingly gloomy picture of direct elections, as seen in the troubled gubernatorial elections in Aceh, North Maluku and West Papua; the deadly election in the South Sulawesi regency of Tana Toraja and the Papuan regencies of Puncak and Tolikara, and other cases of violent regional elections. Not to mention the fact that many local executives are behind bars for corruption, primarily driven by the increasingly expensive nature of contesting direct regional elections.
Direct election for local executives, which was introduced in 2005, can be seen as a landmark in the process of political liberalization in this country. It has become truly a free market for power.
The adoption of the full open-list proportional representation system for legislative elections at all levels in 2009 has made this political market even worse. It has opened intra-party rivalries, in addition to the normal inter-party competition. The former is even more ferocious than the latter. As a consequence, legislative contests have become much more expensive.
Again, I must stress that direct election is only one procedure among other alternative ways of practicing democracy. It should not be confused with the essence of democracy.
The move toward direct election was due to dissatisfaction with the previous procedure of indirect election through the local legislative councils (DPRD). The old procedure was regarded as highly corrupt due to vote-buying during the elections and only gave more power to local party bosses due to the nature of the system. The previous system was blamed for not being able to produce good and clean leaders.
The switch to direct election does not seem to have overcome the shortcomings of the previous method. Vote-buying, not solely limited to local legislative council members, has become more rampant. Superficial image-creation based politics, helped by the mushrooming of political consultancy businesses, has flourished.
Direct elections have increasingly led to expensive contests, and political corruption is the most logical way of financing them. It is a truly free, political, market in a naked sense.
You analyze the market to find out customer preferences and select the most suitable product to offer. At this moment, no need to worry about the quality of the product, spin is more important. Make an investment decision, seek sponsors or investors and finally take the risk.
It must be borne in mind however that each election produces only one winner, but losers abound.
As far as the electoral procedure is concerned, Indonesia’s electoral reform has been highly influenced by US practice. This is not surprising as the key architects of the reform were dominated by US-trained Indonesian political scientists. However, it appears that adopting the American system is more than this country can handle.
From an electoral perspective, the Indonesian electoral procedure has become more American than that of America. In the US, it is true that presidents, governors and mayors are all directly elected by popular votes; but in most cases partisan politics are only practiced from the state level (equivalent to provinces in Indonesia) and up, not below. Nonpartisan direct elections are generally held for municipal and county offices (equal to sub-provincial units in Indonesia), where political party nominations are not required. Local elections in the US adopt varieties of systems rooted in respective local electoral history.
While party nominations exist in the New York mayoral elections, in addition to independent candidates, Chicago has totally non-partisan direct local elections for its mayor.
In the UK, the prime minister has never been directly elected by popular votes, while local elections adopt varieties of systems across their sub-national entities. The mayor of London is directly elected and requires a party nomination. Following the British style of democracy, our neighbor, Australia, has never directly elected their prime ministers, state premiers or mayors.
However, no one would suggest that the UK and Australia are less democratic than the US.
It is true that there are differences. While the US uses the presidential system, the UK and Australia adopt the parliamentary one. In Indonesia, the fundamental constitutional choice between presidentialism and parliamentarism was not a controversial issue.
In this country, we have direct and partisan local elections at all levels. Even village heads in rural villages are also directly elected. While local elections in the US and UK adopt varieties of systems, Indonesia’s direct elections are more a one-size–fits-all approach. While the US and the UK have practiced democracy for centuries, Indonesia has only embraced it for a little more than a decade.
Moving from indirect to direct elections is only about changing style in a game. It will not improve the outcomes of the game as long as improvements in the essence of democracy have not been put in place.
Direct and indirect elections are equally liable to produce relatively good and clean local leaders, as in the case of Mayor Jokowi in Surakarta (Solo), Central Java and Regent Gamawan Fauzi in Solok, West Sumatra. At the same time, both electoral styles have produced numerous incompetent and corrupt local chiefs. Here, the cases of Jokowi and Gamawan are the exceptions rather than the rule.
Therefore it would be misleading to attribute the decline in enthusiasm for direct local elections as an indication of a backlash against democracy. It is about finding the most appropriate way. Of course there are trials and errors. This country must learn from what works and what does not. Democracy is not only about elections, but it cannot be less than that. But, how should we conduct elections? It depends.
For now, however, we seem to be more American than the Americans.
The writer teaches development studies at the University of Western Sydney, Australia.