The Jakarta Post
Outgoing Indonesia President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has vowed to continue fighting for local leaders to be directly elected even after he steps down on Oct 20, as doubts are raised over whether plans to overturn Parliament's vote on the matter will succeed.
"We believe that we should keep direct elections of local officials, but with improvements and tighter rules to avoid money politics, abuse of power and other excesses," he said during a speech at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan, yesterday where he received an honorary doctorate.
Dr Yudhoyono has come under severe criticism since last Friday, when MPs voted to let provincial governors, regents and city mayors be chosen by their district assemblies instead of voters.
Many Indonesians blamed him for squandering votes when all but six of his Democratic Party's 130 MPs present that day walked out of the chamber, effectively letting the remaining MPs approve the change by 226 votes to 135.
The practice of direct elections, which started in 2004, has been seen as a barometer of Indonesia's democratic maturity since the end of former president Suharto's authoritarian era in 1998, during which local leaders were elected by their assemblies.
The MPs' vote after a marathon session that stretched into the early hours of the morning was also an indication of lingering political tensions between two camps after July's heated presidential election - that of parties led by president-elect Joko Widodo's Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle against those allied with defeated presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto's Gerindra Party, backed by Golkar.
Dr Yudhoyono's Democrats declared they were neutral and supportive of direct elections but Indonesians doubted their sincerity, given that many of the party's leaders are still close to Prabowo's coalition.
The leader of the Democrats' parliamentary group, Nurhayati Ali Assegaf, yesterday admitted to initiating the walkout and said she had apologised to the president.
Public outrage on the matter drew thousands to a peaceful demonstration in central Jakarta on Sunday, and many to sign a petition for judicial review of the law.
"We cannot watch quietly when the rights we fought so hard over a decade ago to democratise Indonesia are being snatched," said Eko Sumardi, a business development officer, who was among the students who demonstrated in 1998 to bring down Suharto.
Despite these spirited reactions, analysts cautioned against being overly optimistic that any legal challenge will succeed.
"The Constitution allows for the practice of direct or indirect elections, whichever was voted by Parliament," constitutional law expert Refly Harun told The Straits Times. "The Constitutional Court can, at most, factor in the huge public backlash against the vote, if the judicial review is lodged."
Said Salahudin of civil society group Sigma said that even though Parliament's decision was unpopular, it went through a legitimate process and can be reversed only in the House.
Yesterday, Dr Yudhoyono phoned Constitutional Court chief Hamdan Zoelva for advice on what could be done. The president had expressed reluctance to sign off on the new law.
But Dr Hamdan later told reporters: "After 30 days, the vote comes into effect as law automatically, with or without the president's signature." (***)
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