• SHARE

The old guard in Indonesia may have lost the fight for the presidency, but it remains determined to keep a firm hold on power. In the late night hours of the last legislative session, parties affiliated with the country’s elite changed the voting procedures for local and provincial officials. In doing so, they consolidated their control over that process and put a formidable obstacle in the path of newcomers who might hope to replicate the success of President-elect Joko Widodo.

The decision might yet be rescinded — it should be — but it is a reminder that democracy has tenuous roots in Indonesia and must be constantly nurtured.

A deeply entrenched elite has long dominated politics in Indonesia. Throughout the three-plus decades of rule by former strongman Suharto, local leaders such as mayors or governors were appointed by local parliaments. Not surprisingly, this system reinforced itself; control of the purse reinforced the existing power structures, and corruption was rampant.

As part of the post-Suharto democratic reforms, direct elections for local officials were implemented in 2005. Giving citizens a direct say in selecting their leaders transformed Indonesian politics. It allowed Joko, usually referred to as “Jokowi,” to rise from humble origins as a carpenter from the slums of Central Java to political power. He was twice elected mayor of Solo in Central Java and became governor of Jakarta in a direct election in 2012.

In July, Jokowi defeated retired general Prabowo Subianto, Suharto’s son-in-law and a controversial figure because of his role in commanding forces accused of human rights abuses, in the Indonesian presidential election. His victory was a milestone in Indonesian politics: Jokowi will soon be the first candidate from outside the mainstream to take office in Indonesia since Suharto was forced from power in 1998.

No one expected the establishment forces to concede defeat. After first saying he would challenge the election results, Prabowo and his followers backed down. They struck back in the final hours of Parliament’s five-year term last month. At 2 a.m., the House of Representatives voted 226 to 135 after 12 hours of nationally televised debate to end the direct election of local officials (34 governors and more than 500 district heads and mayors); instead they will be appointed by locally elected legislatures.

The vote was supported by a collection of parties that backed Prabowo, but passage was secured when the party of outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono walked out of the debate. Officially the party left in a pique when amendments it had proposed were rejected.

Even though Prabowo lost the race for president, his party and its allies will have a majority in the next Parliament. That means it can override any procedural challenge to the legislation when the new legislature meets.

Supporters of the legislation argue that Indonesia cannot afford this many elections — 542 local elections every five years, according to the Interior Ministry, with a cost to the government of 70 trillion rupiahs (about $5.8 billion).

“Democracy has become too expensive,” explained the vice chairman of Prabowo’s party. Some tallies show that more than 50 percent of locally elected leaders have been accused of corruption. A final complaint is that direct elections foster violence during the campaigns and corrode the social fabric of a country as diverse and as big as Indonesia.

Opponents dismiss those concerns as rationalizations by an old guard desperate to safeguard its prerogatives:

First, the Constitutional Court ruled earlier this year that simultaneous national elections should be held by 2019, a move that will significantly reduce costs.

Second, they point out that corruption affects all parties, including those that will be appointing the new local leaders.

Third, they cite studies showing that more than 90 percent of local elections were peaceful and that direct local elections reduced violence during the five-year electoral cycle.

Most basically, opponents of the change believe the move is an attempt to destroy small local parties that might spring up in response to local grievances and thus ensure that the established elite in Jakarta continues to dominate politics.

With Jokowi’s victory and opinion polls showing 81 percent of Indonesians supporting direct local elections, a challenge is expected. Some politicians have said they would appeal the decision to the constitutional court, but it is not clear on what basis the law could be overturned.

Supporters of the new law note that since local parliaments are elected, the new procedures merely constitute “indirect democracy.”

Help may come from an unexpected quarter. Although Yudhoyono, the outgoing president, failed to instruct his party members how to vote during debate, he was at the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, speaking in support of direct elections. He has said he is preparing a decree to reverse the law.

Apparently Yudhoyono does not wish to see his reputation tarnished by this rollback of democracy on his watch. Unfortunately, however, the decree would require parliamentary approval and that is by no means certain.

Yudhoyono’s regret should serve as a reminder to democrats everywhere, including in Japan: Democracy is fragile and vigilance is always required if it is to be protected.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.

SUBSCRIBE NOW