SEPTEMBER 14 — Disputes aside, Indonesia’s election was largely considered a success; one that made some international observers call the country a role model for democracy in South-east Asia. They may not feel the same way, however, if the majority of legislators have their way later this month and pass a Bill that abolishes direct election of regional leaders.

The Bill on regional election currently being discussed in Parliament is a real threat to democracy in Indonesia, where direct elections for governors, district heads and mayors only started nine years ago.

Under this Bill, political parties belonging to the Red-White Coalition of failed presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto want to reinstate a defunct system that gives regional legislative councils (DPRDs) the power to vote for candidates.

They claim that returning to the system would save the country Rp 41 trillion (about RM11 million) spent on direct elections, and prevent conflicts amongst the candidates’ supporters. Corruption among heads of regional governments will also decline, they claim.

Parliament is expected to endorse the Bill on September 25, shortly before the new batch of legislators are sworn in.

Leading the move, Prabowo’s Gerindra is backed by five parliamentary factions including Golkar, Democratic Party, the National Mandate Party; and the two Islamic parties Justice and Prosperous Party and the United Development Party.

They are opposed in Parliament by the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDIP), Nation’s Awakening Party (PKB) and Hanura, which all belong to the coalition that supported Joko Widodo’s candidacy.

The Bill has provoked the ire of many, among them local leaders who were elected by popular votes.

The first to make public his refusal of the Bill was the wildly popular Jakarta Deputy Governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who will take over the top post after Governor Jokowi is sworn in as President on November 22.
On Wednesday Ahok, who is the first ethnic-Chinese Jakarta governor in five decades, resigned from Gerindra, the party that nominated him to run as Jokowi’s running mate in the 2012 Jakarta Governor Election.

“What Gerindra fights for goes against my principle of giving people the best option. I won’t support the party’s policy as I’m obliged to, if it means regional heads will be slaves to the councilors,” said Ahok, as he is affectionately known.

Never one to mince his words, Ahok only voiced what most Indonesians are already aware of. Giving the power of choosing a mayor or governor to the local level of legislature will only enhance transactional politics. The system was changed 10 years ago as part of the political reforms process to stop the rampant practice of money politics, and to make politicians accountable to the public who vote for them.

Ahok said the mechanism would turn regional government heads into cash cows for the local legislatures. Before an election the candidate has to pay DPRD for their support, and after they come to power they have to maintain the councilors’ support by paying them, he said.

Indonesia’s losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto waves as he leaves the Constitutional Court in Jakarta in this August 6, 2014 file photograph. — Picture by Reuters
Indonesia’s losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto waves as he leaves the Constitutional Court in Jakarta in this August 6, 2014 file photograph. — Picture by Reuters

The intention to reinstate the non-direct election is backed by flimsy arguments.
Yes, direct election sends campaign costs up, a factor said to make them vulnerable to corruption once they take power. But it is impossible to imagine that an election involving DPRD instead of the public would be cash-free, considering the level of corruption in the legislature.

It is definitely harder to buy votes from millions of people than it is to pay the dozens of members of a DPRD.
As it is now, one cannot run as an independent candidate at regional elections, and has to be nominated by one or more political parties. Scraping direct elections means strengthening party politics’ oligarchy and the political elites’ hegemony.

The Red-White Coalition controls the majority seats at National Parliament and local legislative councils. This means they will be able to nominate and elect regional leaders of their choices, giving them unchecked power in executive and legislative from the national to regional level.

The regional autonomy has given rise to political dynasties, even in the direct election system such as in Banten Province, thanks to their money power and their misuse of local apparatus. But, increasingly, the direct system has given rise to dark-horse candidates whom the public feels connected to.

Ahok started his career as the district head of remote Belitung Timur; Jokowi was voted mayor of Solo twice before running for Jakarta Governor, and popular Surabaya mayor Tri Rismaharini was a little-known bureaucrat with a good professional track record. If it weren’t for direct elections, these people would never have been elected, nor would they even have access to climb the hierarchy of Indonesia’s patronage politics.

In fact, their performance and popularity have improved the standings of the parties that endorse them, such as Gerindra and PDIP, in the April Legislative Election.

Ultimately, taking away the public’s right to vote for their leaders will render futile all the efforts being done by the handful of high-performing mayors, district heads and governors to built a culture of meritocracy in bureaucracy and to inculcate public service into civil service.

Jokowi introduced a tender system for some top local government posts to pick the best people for the job. Ahok has no qualms about removing non-performing officials from their posts (and yelling at them in documented public meetings that are uploaded on YouTube), but he makes sure that the good ones get compensated well.

Without public participation, apathy will be high, and collusion and abuse of power will be even more unchecked.
Fortunately, Indonesians are not staying quiet. On Thursday about 75 district heads and mayors grouped in the Association of District Governments in Indonesia and the Association of City Governments in Indonesia met in Jakarta to express their support for direct elections.

They are backed by about 81.25 per cent of people recently surveyed by Lingkaran Survey Indonesia who believed they should vote directly for their local leaders, compared to just 10.71 per cent who agreed to give the power to DPRD. Ironically, 80 per cent of the 1,200 respondents supported parties belonging to the Red-White Coalition.

Jokowi aptly encapsulated why an election should always be about the voters when he said: “Pak Ahok and I were born from the womb of Democracy, directly voted by the people. How could we ever betray the people who are the biological mother of Democracy?”

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.