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Jakarta Post

Commentary: Disconnection with voters undermines participatory democracy

  • Endy M. Bayuni

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Tue, April 29, 2014   /  09:09 am

As the official count of the April 9 legislative election winds up, Indonesians will soon learn who will represent them at the House of Representatives. Some big names will return, new ones will enter, but some big incumbents will lose their seats.

That is what democratic elections are all about, at least partially. The result of the legislative election also determines which parties have the right to nominate candidates for the July 9 presidential election.

More than seats and power, the legislative election should surely be about the representation of the people. As has been the case with the three previous polls since Indonesia introduced democratic elections in 1999, the representation aspect of our democracy seems to have been completely forgotten or ignored.

Most elected politicians will forget about their constituents soon after they hear the good news. The few sore losers will remember, but only because they want their money back from those voters who failed to deliver on their promises of support.

When the new House members take their oath in October, they will formally become the representatives of the political party that nominated them and not so much the representatives of the people that sent
them there.

This is because under the current laws, political parties, and the oligarchies that control them, have so much power over House members. The party bosses have the right to replace these democratically elected representatives at their whim.

And when it comes to voting in the House, no one dares to rebel against party instructions, lest they risk losing their seat. House members owe their nominations to the generosity of party bosses, and inevitably their loyalty to the party cannot be anything but absolute.

The party mechanism is mandated by the Constitution. Only political parties have the power to nominate candidates for the House election and for the presidential race.

This is representative democracy at its worst. Despite being '€œrepresentatives of the people'€, these elected politicians are anything but. Voters and their representatives are never more disconnected than they are during the five-year mandate of the latter.

The South Jakarta electoral district, where I live and vote, sends seven representatives to Senayan. Like most voters, I had no clue on the performance of the outgoing seven House members. I did not even know their names or what they had done for me.

I recognized only one name '€” Okky Asokawati '€” but more as the young beauty catwalk model of the 1980s, not as the older but still beautiful politician she is today. She and three other South Jakarta incumbents contested the race in April. I heard she was reelected. Good luck to Okky.

My case is likely to be typical of most voters. We feel no connection with the politicians who are supposed to represent us. We cast our votes in April as confused voters.

Politicians probably do not feel obliged to build bridges with their constituents. Most do not even reside in the district they represent. They just need our votes every five years.

Even when they make TV appearances, in the majority of cases, we do not know if they represent our district or not. This is because the media identify them by political party and the House commission they are assigned to. Never are they identified by the district or province they represent.

The floating mass concept that underpinned the six quasi-elections under Soeharto remains after the four democratic elections since 1999. Voter participation in democracy is virtually limited only to the election period every five years.

The political decision-making process is fully controlled by the political parties and their representatives in the House. The people have no or little control over them.

In the absence of any change in the rules and system, the next five years is not likely to be any better. If anything, with oligarchies further consolidating their grip on political parties, it is probably going to get worse.

How can we fix this?

One way is to introduce single-seat electoral districts in 2019, in place of the current system where a district contains between three and 10 seats. This means that if there are 560 House seats, Indonesia should be carved into 560 electoral districts, instead of 77.

This system could make voters more connected with the sole representative of their district. Instead of trying to remember all the representatives from their district, they only have one name to contend with. This makes it easier to monitor, communicate with and even to demand better accountability. Closer monitoring ensures the representative gives his or her loyalty to the district and not the party boss.

Between now and 2019, the media can help by beginning to identify House members by the district or province they represent, as well as the party they come from. This at least helps monitoring the representatives easier. With social media, the electorate can take the initiative and contact their representatives rather than wait for them to come to us. Yes, we will call you, and often.

Indonesia can still prevent its democracy from falling into the mere formality of organizing elections every five years that only give more power to oligarchs who are clearly usurping the sovereignty of the people.

Participatory democracy means more connected, engaged voters. We have our work cut out for the next five years.


The writer is senior editor of The Jakarta Post.