In a matter of days Indonesia will undertake the largest single day exercise of democracy the world has ever seen. The country’s 193 million voters will attend over 800,000 voting locations, run by over 5.5 million election committee staffers, to elect 40,000 legislative representatives from over 250,000 candidates.
With the legislative and presidential elections being held on the same day, all eyes are on the presidential race, between incumbent President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo-Ma’ruf Amin and Prabowo Subianto-Sandiaga Uno. Meanwhile, little attention is being paid to the contest over the 575 seats in the House of Representatives, never mind the regional and city level councils.
In 2013 the Constitutional Court ruled that beginning in 2019 the legislative and presidential elections were to be held simultaneously on the same day to reduce “horse trading” or transactional alliances made among parties following the legislative elections. One only needs to look at the 2014 elections for an example of the transactional politics the ruling was referring to: after backing the losing Prabowo ticket, Golkar and the United Development Party (PPP) later joined Jokowi’s coalition and were rewarded with ministerial appointments.
Time will tell if the simultaneous elections fulfill their purpose of reducing transactional politics. However, some legislative candidates aren’t waiting for the election outcome, with candidates in areas hostile to their party’s presidential candidate going against their party’s alliance and openly supporting the opposing candidate.
It is vitally important to understand what other potential effects holding the elections simultaneously has on the campaign and Indonesian politics more broadly. Altering the system for one purpose can bring about unintended consequences.
Take Indonesia’s move from closed list to fully open list voting for legislative elections. This move was made to increase the directedness of democracy, with voters gaining more power over who was elected at the expense of the party hierarchies that nominate candidates.
However, researcher Marcus Mietzner in 2013 has shown this move coincided with a sharp drop in the party identification levels (how strongly a voter identifies with a specific party) among voters. Open list voting has led to more personalized and less party policy-based political campaigning, as candidates from not only opposing parties but also from within the same party compete for votes. Research by Edward Aspinall and Ward Berenschot in 2019 shows this more personalized campaigning leads to money politics, as individual candidates attempt to secure voter support with bribes of cash and goods.
So, what are some of the unintended effects of the simultaneous elections? One of the expected effects is that the two presidential parties will make gains in the legislative elections, riding the “coat-tail” effect of the popularity and attention the presidential candidates garner. One recent poll put the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP ) of the incumbent at 40 percent and Prabowo’s Gerindra at 25 percent, both up from the 2014 elections where they won 19 percent and 12 percent respectively.
That hasn’t stopped smaller parties attempting to harness the “coat-tail” effect. The Justice and Prosperous Party (PKS) feature Prabowo and Sandiaga very prominently on their legislative campaign banners, even more so than many Gerindra banners.
Who is scrutinizing the candidates vying for positions as the country’s lawmakers? It would appear not many.
Kokok Dirgantoro, Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI) spokesperson and a candidate for the House in the electoral district of Banten III, says the General Elections Commission (KPU) “should give more room to the legislative candidates and political parties in the debates, not only the presidential candidates. People don’t know what parties think about different issues.”
Puteri Komarudin, a Golkar candidate running for the House in West Java VII, said she is often contacted by the media for comment on the presidential election despite not being officially in the presidential campaign team, and that “only a few media ask questions about the legislative campaign, the rest are very presidential election centric.”
This lack of media attention is mirrored in the voting public. In interviews with legislative candidates regarding their campaigning, all stressed the difficulty in drawing voters’ attention to the legislative elections. Lena Marayana, PPP chairperson and sitting House member for Jakarta II, said it was “a big challenge” as she had spoken to citizens who were unaware that they would be voting for anything more than the presidential candidates.
It’s not only the lack of attention that is cause for concern. Along with the 575 House seats being contested there are hundreds of thousands of candidates competing for seats in the Regional Representative Council (DPD), along with the regional and city level DPRD councils. Voters will receive five ballots when they vote, bringing a complexity to elections that not many are paying attention to. Buky Wibawa, regional council candidate and senior figure of Gerindra’s West Java provincial chapter, said these elections may not only be the world’s largest, but also “the most complicated election in the world.”
Stephani Dania, running for the council in Bandung on the National Democratic (NasDem) ticket, said campaigning was not just a matter of gaining support from voters, but that a large portion of her time was spent educating voters on the voting process for the different levels of government. Dania said that some supportive voters tell her, “We wish to support you, but how do we do this?”
Observing a small neighborhood event hosted by Dania and her NasDem colleague Muhammad Farhan, a House candidate for the West Java I electorate, the two spent significant time explaining the different ballots and levels of government, all under the observation of the Election Supervisory Agency, Bawaslu.
The sheer scale of the elections is staggering. That they will likely proceed with minimal interference and conjecture surrounding the result, just as the previous elections have, is a testament to Indonesia’s electoral systems. Likewise, while Indonesian’s have dwindling faith in their elected representatives (a trend mirrored in democracies across the globe) Indonesians continue to have faith in the country’s electoral system and democracy more broadly.
For a well-functioning democracy with representatives held to account, an informed constituency is vital. With elections for five levels of government being held simultaneously confusing so many voters, education is key. Sitting House member Irine Robba from PDIP believes holding the simultaneous elections is a good thing, “But the homework is we have to inform our people more about the duty between the president, parliament and so on.”
One of the effects of the simultaneous elections is already clear, they are much cheaper than running separate elections. This money saved would be well spent on a significant education campaign to inform voters on how the different levels of government work and how to fully participate in the biggest election day the world has ever witnessed.
The writer is a researcher from La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.