Opinion

Coalition building and
our presidential system

As soon as the legislative election quick count results were released, the discourse on coalition building among political parties began.

It is not only that coalitions need to be formed to contest the upcoming presidential election in July, as no party (at least according to quick counts) reached 20 percent of legislative seats or 25 percent of the popular vote, but coalitions are also necessary to ensure strong support in the House of Representatives for who wins the presidency.

It is interesting to see two different approaches to coalition building from the two most likely contenders, Jakarta Governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and Prabowo Subianto of the Gerindra Party.

While Jokowi emphasized that Cabinet portfolio negotiations for potential coalition members were off the table, in an effort to strengthen presidentialism, Prabowo has offered a “power sharing” (or “big tent” coalition according to Gerindra’s Fadli Zon) mechanism for its coalition. In short, this means offering Cabinet seats to coalition members.

How will these approaches impact on our system of government in the next five years?

The term “coalition” is alien in any presidential system. It is more common to find it in a parliamentary system, such as in the UK.

Usually, a coalition is formed if no political parties reach 50 percent+1 of seats in the parliament to ensure a stable government.

It has been an increasing phenomenon in Western Europe for the last five decades where coalitions have been needed due to decreasing support for the main political parties, making smaller size parties the “king-makers”.

In the last UK general election, the decision of the Liberal Democrat Party to form a coalition with the Conservative Party made UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s government possible.

Although a minority government (wherein the ruling government’s parliamentary support is less than 50 percent+1) is theoretically possible, largely, a coalition to ensure 50 percent+1 of parliamentary seats is pursued.

Does all this apply to Indonesia’s presidential system? It depends.

Theoretically, in presidential systems coalitions are not needed. Since the president is elected directly by the people, unlike prime ministers in parliamentary systems, presidents are guaranteed five-year terms no matter what.

According to this line of reasoning, there is no need for an Indonesian president to “share” Cabinet seats with coalition members.

This line of reasoning is apparently exactly what Jokowi has taken. If his coalition discussions with Nasdem Party chairman Surya Paloh are taken as a reference, they did not discuss the Cabinet portfolio at all.

According to this camp, coalition building is a “policy-seeking” exercise where parties who agree with certain policies will naturally join the bloc.

But this is not the complete picture.

In our system, the president is not the only one running the show. Many laws and policies need to be made with the House’s approval.

Hence, to ensure that the president’s policies are supported by the House, presidents need to form a coalition of political parties that consists of 50 percent+1 of seats in the House.

The way of ensuring political parties to “join” the coalition is by giving them seats in the Cabinet.

According to political theorists Michael Lever and Kenneth A. Shepsle, the route of Cabinet portfolio negotiation is taken as it is the most credible and concrete negotiation subject, compared to negotiations over certain policies, as coalition building is perceived as an “office-seeking” exercise.

This line of reasoning is taken by Prabowo’s camp, and was also implemented during the two terms of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

For this camp, the “power sharing” of a Cabinet portfolio for coalition members is simply the consequence of the political reality to ensure support in the House, plus ensuring support during the presidential election.

So, what is the verdict?

Each approach has its own merit. Jokowi’s approach relies on the assumption that as long as the executive branch’s policy initiatives are aligned with the public interest at large, the House will always be difficult to oppose.

However, as the Yudhoyono debacle has shown, even a much-needed policy to cut the fuel subsidy did not pass as it did not get enough House support.

Moreover, the presidential election is all about figureheads, making the number of political parties supporting the candidate irrelevant.

Prabowo’s power-sharing approach relies on the assumption that House support is guaranteed as coalition members are expected to return the favor of being given Cabinet seats.

However, as Yudhoyono’s large coalition has taught us, not all of his coalition members supported him in the House.

We remember well how the Golkar Party and Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) “ditched” the coalition by openly campaigning against the government on the issues of the Bank Century bailout case and the fuel subsidy cut.

As long as our political parties are not clearly differentiated on policies, we will remain in the dark on why parties reject/support certain policies by the executive branch, or why parties join one coalition bloc instead of the other.

We must put up with the fact that the realpolitik need to “share power” or “Cabinet portfolio allocation” will always emerge, that is unless we give a chance for real presidentialism to take shape by watching the policy-making process closely to avoid politically a motivated House that simply opposes the president for backdoor concessions.

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The writer, studying at the London School of Economics and Political Science in the UK, co-authored a chapter on Indonesia’s legislature in a book by Zheng Yongnian titled Parliaments in Asia: Institution Building and Political
Development.

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