Appreciating Indonesia's Democratic Elections
Indonesia will hold its first ever concurrent presidential and legislative elections on 17 April 2019 –the largest single-day election in the world. Some people in the international community question whether the elections will be free and fair, tainted with voter irregularities, marred by violence, or will the change to holding both the legislative and presidential elections simultaneously pose a major problem to the voting process itself.
I believe that most of the concerns are unfounded and have confidence in the country’s democratic election process. To address some of these questions, we should put things in context. That is to look back in Indonesian history, back to 1998, to appreciate the country’s progress when it comes to conducting democratic elections.
We discuss this and more on the Indonesia In-depth podcast but here are the main takeaways:
Indonesia in the past
Fully centralized government – For decades until 2001, the country was ruled top-down by a strong central government while local governments took orders from Jakarta.
Autocratic leadership - Indonesia didn’t always have democratic elections but did have a powerful leader, President Soeharto, for 32 years along with a docile parliament which served more as a rubber stamp of the president than a separate branch.
Military’s “dual function” - The military played a strong role in politics and in society. It held over 20% of the seats in parliament for almost 50 years. These seats represented the military’s interest and were not elected but directly appointed by generals.
Representatives decided the president - For more than three decades, the president(s) and vice president(s) were elected by the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) or Upper House, not the people.
Path to democracy
Trifecta crisis - This all came to an end in 1998 when a political, economic and social crisis consumed Indonesia simultaneously which eventually resulted in a prodemocracy moment or Reformasi. This led to the downfall of President Soeharto.
A “basket case” - In the wake of the downfall of Soeharto, Indonesia became known as a “basket case” in disarray and fears grew that it could have a similar fate as Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Democratic celebration - With the downfall of Soeharto, Indonesia rushed to hold legislative representatives in 1999 which was surprisingly peaceful given the circumstances. Voters only chose political parties, not the representatives directly. The election process overall was not perfect but better than expected and accepted by international observers.
Four presidents in four years – From 1998 to 2001, Indonesia has four different presidents. Soeharto resigned in 1998, replaced by his VP BJ Habibie, then Abdurrahman Wahid elected by parliament in 1999, who is then impeached and replaced by his VP Megawati Soekarnoputri in 2001.
Central to regional shift - Regional autonomy is implemented in 2001, shifting many new responsibilities to local leaders which is a major shift in governance. This has been a long and difficult process and remains a work in progress but has had some successes.
Five years of instability & uncertainty - Up until 2004, Indonesia’s economic situation remained difficult, there was also little political or social stability. The separatist movement in Aceh was escalating and the brutal religious conflict in Poso, Central Sulawesi, was experiencing a fragile peace. At the same time the military was preparing to depart parliament for good, handing over full power to elected representatives. Some began to question whether democracy was the best route for the country as democratic leaders failed to cope with the massive challenges they were faced with.
Direct voting - Voters directly elected their president and vice president for the first time, electing Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as their president that same year.
A breath of stability - Yudhoyono’s two five-year back-to-back terms (2004-2014) brought a sense of stability.
First democratic transition - In 2014, it was the first time that there was a transition from one democratically elected president to another. We should put that into perspective and remember that it was merely five years ago.
Jakarta election - The 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election received international attention with identity politics playing a major role in the campaign and a politically driven blasphemy case against the city’s governor Basuki Purnama (Ahok) that followed. Ahok lost the election by double digits but the election process itself was considered free and fair. He was later convicted of blasphemy and served just under two years in jail.
2018 elections - With deep concern that the role of identity politics used in the Jakarta election would be the new normal and that it would play a major role across the country triggering violence, the 2018 regional elections that were held across the country were generally peaceful, transparent without major instances identity politics.
Concurrent elections - Traditionally, Indonesia held its legislative election two months before the presidential election. The presidential tickets were based on the political party seats in parliament from the election just months before. The elections in 2019 will be held concurrently, on the same day, with hopes to eventually reduce costs, consolidate political parties in the parliament and strengthen the country’s presidential system.
Time consuming - Since the voters will be voting for all the candidates at once, unfolding and reviewing the ballots and voting could be more time consuming (or confusing) that the KPU expects, slowing the voting process and creating longer lines at the polls. The KPU is aware of this and has added additional polling stations hoping to mitigate this issue.
Indonesia remains a young democracy and has made remarkable progress with regards to transitioning to a functioning democracy. Of course there is plenty of room for improvement with the implementation of democratic elections in Indonesia. However, noting how agile it has been with its move to implement an institutionalized democracy after decades of being under Soeharto’s regime, and how transparent their elections were afterwards, the conduct of the 2019 elections looks promising.
Naturally, more work needs to be done to fine-tune the election process and much more needs to be done on other aspects such as human rights, rule of law, and corruption. However, it should be appreciated that Indonesia has made a remarkable progress in a relatively short period of time while its neighbours are turning more autocratic.