Indonesia Votes to Scrap Direct Elections

By Ali Kotarumalos 26 September 2014

JAKARTA — Indonesia’s outgoing parliament voted Friday to scrap direct elections for local officials and return to the electoral system in place under dictator Suharto, in what was widely regarded as a setback to the country’s democracy.

The vote represents an early defeat for President-elect Joko Widodo, whose party had voted against the change, and suggests he will face a struggle to govern effectively. The bill was supported by a coalition of rightwing parties whose candidate was narrowly defeated in July’s presidential elections and is vowing to disrupt the Widodo administration.

Direct elections for mayors, regents and governors began in 2005 and were seen as a major part of Indonesia’s democratic transition after the 1998 fall of Suharto dictatorship. The change came about because of complaints the old system, where regional legislatures chose local leaders, had returned generations of corrupt and inefficient administrations beholden to the country’s equally graft-ridden political parties.

After hours of debate and backroom dealings, a majority of lawmakers approved the bill early Friday morning, returning the country to the pre-2005 system. The country’s president, who prior to 2005 was also chosen by lawmakers, will continue to be directly elected by the people.

“Taking away the people’s right to choose their leader is a blatant betrayal of public trust and sidelines them from the democratic process altogether, rendering all the progress and costs of the last 10 years futile,” said The Jakarta Globe in an editorial. “Indonesia has returned to a system of elitist democracy controlled by a handful of corrupt politicians serving only their own interests.”

A network of pro-democracy activists has already said they will challenge the change at the country’s Constitutional Court, which has the power to overrule parliament.

The bill was pushed by the “Red-and-White” coalition of losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, a Suharto-era general.

Its members said change was needed because direct elections were expensive and more prone to producing corrupt leaders than the old system. Civil society activists and progressive voices had disputed this, saying the parties themselves could implement campaign finance laws to lessen costs and that they played a major role in the corruption in the direct elections.

Widodo and several other previously little-known politicians have risen to power via direct regional elections after appealing directly to voters and being voted on their record, loosening the grip of the major political parties.

“It is hard not to view this bill as a blunt political manoeuver to return electoral authority from the people to party leadership in the face of electoral defeat in the presidential election,” Andrew Thornley, an Indonesian election expert at the Asia Foundation, wrote in a blog post Thursday.

Several independent opinion polls had shown a clear majority of Indonesians were in favor of keeping the direct elections.