Indonesia’s House of Representatives (DPR) passed a controversial bill in the early morning of Friday (26/09) that is widely criticized by media and analysts. After a walk out of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party (the largest party in parliament having 148 out of 560 seats) in the plenary session, parliament agreed that direct voting in the regions will be scrapped, thus leaving it to the regional legislatures to elect mayors, district heads and governors. Critics say this bill is a setback for democracy.
As both the national and regional legislatures are believed to be corrupt to a considerable degree, critics say that the new law will give ample opportunity to money politics, nepotism and other corrupt behaviour. Many point out that Indonesia will go a step back into history with this new law. During Suharto’s authoritarian New Order regime (1966-1998) elections had always been rigged to safeguard the political power of the ruling elite.
Moreover, the controversial passing of the new law is another example of how the political elite in Jakarta plays games at the expense of the people. It is suspected that the new law is part of the parliament’s revenge for Joko Widodo’s victory in the 2014 presidential election. Parties that put their support behind the new bill were those that had backed competing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto in the election. Controversial former army general Subianto was narrowly defeated in this election and thus Indonesia’s next president (popularly known as Jokowi) will be the first president that does not come from the political oligarchy that has had a firm grip on power in Southeast Asia’s largest economy. In fact, Jokowi has been able to rise through the political ranks due to the direct voting system having been chosen by local people to become mayor of Solo (2005-2012), governor of Jakarta (2012-2014), and president of Indonesia (starting from 20 October 2014). This development may be a thorn in the eye of the oligarchic power structure.
Initially, parliament was divided about the controversial bill and it would be a tight decision. However, after the Democratic Party walked out from the session - after its proposed amendments for stricter control of direct elections were rejected - the bill’s fate was sealed as the Merah-Putih coalition (referring to those parties that supported Subianto in the election) formed the majority. Many were surprized about the walk out of the Democratic Party and claim that it was on purpose to leave a majority for the Merah-Putih coalition although previously incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (who also acts as Chairman of the Democratic Party) had said that he supports direct elections in the regions of the world’s largest archipelago.
This experience also indicates that Jokowi (who is in favour of direct local elections) will have a hard time governing effectively in the years ahead amid a hostile parliament (due to the Merah-Putih majority in parliament) and this may come at the expense of economic and social development.
Supporters of the new bill claim that direct local elections are too expensive while also being vulnerable to corruption.
Local direct elections, part of the Reformasi and decentralization processes that started after the fall of Suharto in 1998, commenced in 2004 as the old system (in which local legislatures chose mayors, regents and governors) was believed to be corrupted to a high degree. Indonesian pro-democracy activists have announced to challenge the new bill in the country’s Constitutional Court, which has the authority to overrule parliament’s decision.