Indonesia’s legislative elections: Are people getting cynical about the whole thing?

APRIL 6 — With so much attention being paid on who will be Indonesia’s next president, it is easy to overlook an equally important democratic event that will take place next week — the legislative elections.

On April 9, over 180 million eligible voters will elect more than 20,000 legislators for 532 different legislatures at the national, provincial, district and municipal levels.

But in the last two legislative elections after its first democratic election in four decades in 1999, Indonesians have seen declining voter turnouts. From 92.7 per cent in 1999 the number of voters dropped to 84.07 per cent in 2004, and further down to 70.06 per cent five years later, according to a study by Kompas daily.

This has raised questions as to whether the number will continue to dip this year. Some recent surveys show a significant majority of respondents remain interested in voting this year. Compared to five years ago, there is a high level of interest and awareness in this election.

The Indonesia Research Centre found that 95 per cent of its respondents would vote in the legislative election, though only 78 per cent knew when it would be held. Another survey conducted by Asia Foundation shows that 30 per cent of its respondents will make the necessary effort to be able to vote, if their names are not on the voters’ list.

“When we talk about non-voters, we have to take into account those who do not vote for technical reasons, like because they were not on the voters lists; those who do not vote because they do not know who to vote; and those who do not vote for political reasons,” Gita Putri of the Centre for Law and Policies Studies (PSHK) told me.

“I really doubt that most of them are political non-voters,” she said. 

Technical glitches might have caused the low voter turnout in 2009. That election was notoriously flawed with administrative issues like incomplete voters’ lists, as well as logistics problems involving ballot papers and vote counts.

But her other observation was spot on too: most people really do not know who to vote to represent them in the legislatures.

Over 230,000 candidates from 15 parties are contesting this election, a daunting number by any standard. In my electorate alone, I have to choose from among 35 candidates of national parliament, 35 candidates from the House’s Regional Representative Council, and a few dozen others for the Jakarta city legislature. Talk about option paralysis.

Added to this is the disillusionment with political parties because of the number of corruption cases involving politicians and parliamentarians. I grew up in the Suharto era of three-party politics, when elections were held merely to legitimize his presidency.

We all knew that the ruling Golkar Party would win by a landslide anyway. But even then, party identification — whether with Golkar or the two other opposition parties — seemed higher than now, when the level of scepticism towards political parties is high.

But while many Indonesians couldn’t care less who gets to represent them in parliament, they are passionate when it comes to electing their leader. Since the first direct presidential election in 2004, a party’s presidential nominee has been a determining factor that encourages people to show up at the polling booth.

A political party has to win 25 per cent votes or 20 seats in parliament in order to be able to nominate a president, or they will have to form a coalition. This is the reason why parties tend to promote their presidential candidates instead of legislative candidates in the open campaign season in the last two weeks, although the presidential race is not until July.

Poor recruitment systems, weak institutional building, and the perception that parties are filled with corrupt politicians have made many people shun politics, denying Indonesia of many competent people with integrity in its politics.

But my research into the election has allowed me to meet many legislative candidates with quality and integrity, though they may be in the minority. Only 0.5 per cent of all the legislative candidates and five per cent of candidates for national parliament are clean and competent, if one survey is to be believed. The key now is how to get that handful of people elected.

Last month, Gita’s organisation PSHK and a number of human rights, environmental, and anti-corruption non-governmental organisations launched Bersih2014, a website dedicated to endorsing legislative candidates they deem qualified for the job.

To earn their endorsement, each candidate must have never been involved in human rights abuses, be pro-environment, are not tainted by any corruption case, champion pluralism, and do not discriminate against women. Sadly, they only came up with 97 candidates of national and regional legislature to endorse.

Other organisations have also provided resources for people eager to seek information on whom to vote for next year. Even the influential Tempo magazine dedicated an issue on legislative candidates they endorse.

The majority of Indonesians may be non-rational voters who will choose candidates based on their looks, or vote who their religious leaders tell them to, or how much money they receive from candidates on the eve of the election.

But with more information comes empowerment. In the marketplace of Indonesia’s politics, the more empowered its voters, the more likely the young democracy will mature.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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