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Jakarta Post

Misdirecting elections

  • Ward Berenschot

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Wed, October 1, 2014   /  10:58 am

There is much that is sad about the decision of the Indonesian House of Representatives to scrap direct elections for governors, regents and mayors. Without elections, regional leaders will only be accountable to self-serving elites in local legislative councils.

The Democratic Party made this possible by a shameful refusal to take a stance and live up to their name. And the victory for the proponents of the bill '€“ the parties of Prabowo Subianto'€™s Red-and-White coalition '€“ spells trouble for Joko '€œJokowi'€ Widodo'€™s presidency. All that is saddening, as it reverses the some of the real democratic gains of the last 15 years.

But equally sad is the narrowness of this debate on electoral reform. Boiled down to a for-or-against direct elections, this debate has precluded a more open and constructive discussion about finding ways to defend democratic accountability and address the real problems caused by direct elections. Democratic accountability was hardly on the mind of the lawmakers of the Red-and-With coalition: they seem mostly concerned with strengthening the power of party elites and reducing the costs of their election campaigns.

But that should not have prevented pro-democracy lawmakers and organizations from setting the agenda and developing their own proposals. As they restrict themselves to defending the current electoral system, neither side is using the debate on electoral reform to find and propose more comprehensive solutions.

The current electoral system has real and serious drawbacks. But not necessarily those voiced by the Red-and-White coalition: they have pointed, for example, to electoral violence which actually has gone down significantly in recent years. Similarly their concern about the cost of holding direct elections could also be addressed by organizing them on the same day as legislative elections.

But there are other concerns.

After having spent much of the past year following local elections campaigns, I would particularly highlight the following three issues.

First, the costliness of election campaigns has meant that wealthy elites or those with links to wealthy elites stand a much bigger chance to be elected.

To become a candidate, you need to either collect a lot of signatures, or obtain the support of a coalition of parties that received 15 percent of the votes (or seats) in the last elections. To get this support from parties, there is not much room for either idealism of ideology: parties support the candidates who combine a high chance of winning with a willingness to pay parties handsomely for this support.

The subsequent election campaign is made even more expensive by the rampant practice of vote-buying. As a result, despite exceptions like Tri Rismaharini (Surabaya), Ridwan Kamil (Bandung) or Jokowi (Solo and Jakarta), elected regional leaders are generally better with money than with ideas and policies.

Second, the debts that candidates incur during election campaigns wreak havoc the functioning of local governments. Not just financial debts '€“ although that is greatly damaging too, given the staggering number ( 290 ) of regional heads implicated in corruption cases. But also personal debts: the funding an election campaign, for example, is an effective way for entrepreneurs to secure a government contract or a concession to exploit natural resources.

Similarly, becoming a member of a campaign team (tim sukses) is often a smart way to obtain a job or business license. As elected politicians feel obliged towards such supporters, they manipulate the implementations of laws and policies on their behalf. This hutang budi (moral debt) weakens state institutions and the rule of law.

 Third, direct elections are politicizing local bureaucracies in a very unhealthy way. As regional heads can make or break bureaucratic careers, civil servants often find it impossible to stay neutral during elections. Even though the law prohibits them from campaigning, civil servants feel they risk being '€œnon-jobbed'€ or transferred if their loyalty is in doubt.

Politicians, particularly incumbents, often encourage this fear. With people on the ground everywhere, the government apparatus is a mighty campaign tool for politicians. As a result, bureaucrats are being promoted because of their loyalty rather than their capacity. This is greatly damaging the capacity and effectiveness of local governments.

As proponents of direct elections would be quick to point out, these issues would be hardly solved by putting the local legislative councils (DPRD) in control. When DPRD members would select a regional head, wealthy elites (particularly party elites) would also be privileged, there would also be moral debts and the bureaucracy would remain politicized.

That is the point: the vote in the House of Representatives was a vote between two bad choices. The decision to scrap direct election means a return to a system that was already deemed unsatisfactory 10 years ago. That did not have to so.

With more creative thinking and a less defensive embrace of the current system, pro-democracy organizations and politicians could have come up with solutions that would address current problems and strengthen democratic accountability.

For example, an alternative might be to hold one integrated election for DPRD and regional heads by stipulating that the first person on the list of the winning party would automatically become regional head.

This would reduce campaigning costs, strengthen the profile of political parties and still enable people to select their local leader.

Likewise many other alternative measures can be thought of, leading to a more genuine, comprehensive attempt at electoral reform. This might even convince the Democratic Party faction to come out and vote.


The writer is a researcher at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV), studying election campaigns and citizenship in Indonesia.

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