As Indonesia’s departing president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, spoke last month in the United States about the importance of public participation in politics, the party he leads was working to deprive Indonesians of their right to vote directly for their district leaders or mayors
As Indonesia’s departing president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, spoke last month in the United States about the importance of public participation in politics, the party he leads was working to deprive Indonesians of their right to vote directly for their district leaders or mayors, notes Elizabeth Pisani, the author of “Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation.”
“The move was an attempt by Jakarta’s old guard, whose candidate lost the last national elections in July, to reassert itself in the face of a new breed of politician: competent local administrators who can appeal directly to voters rather than bend to the whims and corrupt interests of their political parties,” she writes for the New York Times:
That generational clash — between candidates whose politics were shaped during the 32 years Suharto held power and those who have come of age professionally since his authoritarian rule ended in 1998 — was the central narrative of the presidential election. In the old guard’s corner was Prabowo Subianto, a former general and son-in-law of Suharto who promised strong-arm government and glory for Indonesia. In the reformist corner was Joko Widodo, a poor-boy-made-good figure and former mayor of Jakarta, who spoke quietly of serving the people…..Still smarting from his loss to a relative nobody, Mr. Prabowo and his supporters whipped the departing Parliament into passing a bill that gave control over the most important parliamentary offices to the largest coalition in the chamber (Mr. Prabowo’s) rather than the largest party (Mr. Joko’s). Then they set about dismantling direct elections of district heads or mayors, as well as those of provincial governors.
Indonesian civil society groups have responded to the move by boycotting the Bali Democracy Forum:
A group of 8 prominent Indonesian non-governmental organizations, including Perludem (Associations for Elections and Democracy), Migrant Care, Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW), Kontras (Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence), and Transparency International Indonesia, said today that they were declining the invitation to attend the forum.
“We don’t need to talk about democracy in ceremonial events, when the people’s right to vote for their leader has been removed,” Perludem explained in a tweet.
Many of the administrators in the provinces—popularly known as “mini Suhartos”—are adept at siphoning off the funds and resources at their disposal, analyst Pankaj Mishra noted in a recent issue of the New Yorker:
The country’s old problems of poverty, inequality, and environmental despoliation have become more daunting amid the euphoria generated by faster economic growth and the enrichment of a tiny minority. The elections earlier this month revealed a deepening confusion over what kind of country Indonesia should be. One of the two main Presidential candidates was Suharto’s former son-in-law, Prabowo Subianto, a former general accused of committing many human-rights abuses in the nineties, who was backed by most of the political and business élite. Though he is an oil magnate these days, Prabowo tried to direct mass rage and frustration against foreigners who are “pillaging” Indonesia. …. Jokowi was the first Presidential candidate since Suharto to have had no ties to the dictator. The son of a carpenter, he has a record of supporting small businesses and the urban poor. The election results show the huge appeal of his call to a “mental revolution” and “bottom-up” governance among young Indonesians discontented with top-down modernizers.“ The end of direct elections does not automatically spell an end for democracy,” analyst Catriona Croft-Cusworth writes for the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter. “But in the Indonesian context, the end of direct regional elections means the end of a functioning mechanism that was letting reformist non-elites take power. Any way you look at it, that’s a setback for democracy that the incoming government will be tasked with trying to undo.”
A majority of district heads still have links with the Suharto-era political elites. The crucial contribution of direct elections has been to serve up a handful of leaders who have used the public’s confidence in them to experiment with bold new programs and approaches to government, Pisani writes:
When this happens, the news media flashes the good examples across the archipelago, stimulating hope among Indonesians that change is possible. That hope was most eloquently expressed in the election of Mr. Joko, who first came to national attention as the directly elected mayor of a small city, Solo.
By handing the choice of district head back to political parties, Mr. Prabowo’s coalition, which includes Mr. Yudhoyono’s party, has stomped on the chances of such candidates’ emerging in the future. Farmers, fishermen and millions of other working Indonesians are outraged. A poll published Oct. 1 in the newspaper Kompas reported that 82 percent of respondents in 12 cities said they thought members of Parliament lacked discipline, and 86 percent thought they were corrupt.
“There is an irony here,” she notes. “Although Indonesians are losing democratic rights, it is happening through entirely democratic procedures.”