Indonesia’s Decade of Direct Local Ballots Is at Risk

The legislative bill, sponsored by the coalition of losing candidate Prabowo Subianto, seeks to return to a system of local assemblies choosing regional leaders

by Rieka Rahadiana & Neil Chatterjee on 09:27 am Sep 17, 2014

Indonesia’s incoming president began his political ascent as a mayor in a system of local elections. The parties of the candidate he beat in July will try to change the law next week to prevent that happening again.

Lawmakers will vote Sept. 25 on a bill to revise a 2004 law on regional government that enabled direct elections. The draft, seen by Bloomberg News, would turn the clock back to a system of local assemblies choosing regional leaders that was created after the downfall of the late dictator Suharto.

The vote in parliament, where parties on the losing side of the presidential ballot now hold 75 percent of seats, poses a test for the world’s third-largest democracy and President-elect Joko Widodo, who got his start as mayor of the city of Solo. The bill, opposed by Joko and outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is sponsored by the coalition of losing candidate Prabowo Subianto and may mark a reversal of the shift in power to the regions that began in 2001.

“It is certainly an attempt by some to claw back power both from the regions and, worse, from the voters,” said Paul Rowland, a Jakarta-based political analyst and former country director for advocacy group the National Democratic Institute. “The praetorian guard of the New Order want to reverse a reform that has gotten out of their control” he said, referring to a term used to describe the administration of Suharto, once Prabowo’s father-in-law.


The bill, if approved, would reduce the chances for a young crop of hands-on mayors across the country to follow Joko, known as Jokowi, into national politics. Jokowi’s successor as Jakarta governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, resigned this month from Prabowo’s Gerindra party in protest at its support of the bill. There is no provision in the bill to abandon the direct elections that occur at a national level.

“Elections by local parliament would be a setback, hurting the people’s sovereignty,” Jokowi said earlier this month when asked about the bill. “Me and Pak Ahok were born from the womb of direct democracy as the people’s choice. How can we betray people as the mother of democracy?” he said on his Facebook page.

The bill does have an option to preserve direct elections, with new rules on voting. Yudhoyono’s Democrat party and Prabowo’s Gerindra party both support the version for indirect elections, along with others in Prabowo’s coalition. Jokowi’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, and its coalition partners favor direct elections.

Yudhoyono role

The role of Yudhoyono, the chairman of the Democrat party that is the largest in the current parliament with 26 percent of seats, may be crucial in deciding the form of the final law. Yudhoyono, keen to preserve a democratic legacy after his 10 years in office, remained officially neutral in the July presidential vote, while his party announced support for Prabowo.

“Direct local elections should be maintained as well as direct presidential elections,” Yudhoyono said in a video released by his party to YouTube this month. “The reality, in 10 years, is that there were many excesses occurring in elections for governor, regent and mayor. What if we keep the direct elections system, but prevent the many excesses?”

Yudhoyono, a former army general, suggested a third option in which provincial governors, as representatives of the central government, be indirectly elected, while citizens would vote directly for city mayors and local regents. Any system had pluses and minuses, he said.

Convicted candidates

“While he has said the party’s role will be ‘constructive’, there are grave doubts that the coalition wants to do much more than create obstacles for the new government,” said Keith Loveard, head of risk analysis at Jakarta-based security company Concord Consulting, referring to the group led by Prabowo.

Proponents of the draft bill say it would save the state money and reduce corruption in local voting. A poll by the Indonesian Survey Circle released this month of 1,200 people in 33 provinces found 81 percent felt local leaders should be elected directly by the people, the Jakarta Globe reported last week.

The bill calls for other changes to election rules. The version favoring indirect elections would let people who have served five years or more in jail run as candidates if they commit not to repeat the crime. Yudhoyono, who was re-elected in 2009 on a platform to cut graft, has been dogged by corruption scandals in his party.


Indonesia ranked 114th among 177 countries in a 2013 Transparency International corruption perceptions survey. During an election debate with Jokowi over the role of mafia in business, Prabowo said he couldn’t rule out thieves in his camp. The draft bill says candidates must have no direct relationship to the incumbent, an effort to stop political dynasties.

The results of next week’s vote will have implications for the 242 local elections planned next year across Indonesia, with direct voting not necessarily the cause of graft, said Andrew Thornley, program director for elections at The Asia Foundation.

“Electoral corruption is best addressed through attention to improving candidate recruitment, transparency in campaign finances, and enforcement of sanctions in cases of vote buying and fraud during the count,” Thornley said.

The version favoring direct elections makes changes to the process of counting votes. “Quick counts,” where survey companies count actual votes at a sample of booths to give results with a margin of error of a few percent, could only be announced after the vote count is completed.


Voting can be re-done if there’s a security disturbance, if procedures are not followed to open ballots or voters cast ballots more than once, the draft bill says. Prabowo, in an unsuccessful challenge of the election outcome in the constitutional court, sought re-votes in some provinces because of alleged irregularities including ballots being opened early and incorrect voter lists.

The central government in Jakarta began to transfer power to the regions after the fall of Suharto in 1998 to head off various secessionist movements around the sprawling archipelago and better address local development needs. Aceh, the westernmost province, gained fuller autonomy after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami ended decades of fighting for independence.

The 2001 decentralization dubbed the “big bang” saw Indonesia almost double the share of government spending to regions, transfer almost two thirds of the central government workforce, and hand over more than 16,000 public services such as hospitals and schools, according to a 2003 World Bank report.

Finding balance

The 1999 rule required district heads, mayors and governors to be elected by local parliaments, before the 2004 law introduced direct elections. A year later Jokowi, then a furniture businessman, won the post of mayor of his home town of Solo in Java. He was re-elected in a landslide in 2009, before winning the capital in 2012 and then becoming the first national leader without ties to Suharto.

Indonesia still needs to address the balance between central and regional governments, with mayors and regents at times wielding too much power, Loveard said.

“A large number of the newly autonomous regions have been a financial disaster,” Loveard said. “Joko Widodo now has the headache of trying to fix what Yudhoyono identified but chose to ignore.”