Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Indonesia's Democracy Stuck in the Swamps

Mired in a swamp of self-interest, money-making and legislative malaise, Indonesia's political elite has now ensured there will be no one else to share the spoils by severely limiting the number of parties that will contest the 2014 legislative elections.

Only 10 parties passed the General Election Commission (KPU) verification, in a screening process that has seen the overall field drop from the 48 parties which took part in the first democratic elections in 1999 to 24 in 2004, and then back to 38 in 2009.

With 24 parties failing to make the cut, the only newcomer this time is the newly formed National Democrat Party. But even that is built around a breakaway faction from the Golkar Party headed by media tycoon Surya Paloh, Golkar's former chief patron.

Among the victims of the KPU paring knife were the Crescent Star Party (PBB), which had contested all three past elections, and the United National Party, founded by the leaders of 12 minor parties who failed to win representation in 2009.

Quite apart from denying the country's 187 million potential voters a wider choice, the onerous qualification obstacles the big parties embedded in last year's amendment to the 2008 electoral law will also make the electorate more Java-centric than ever.

The PBB, for example, failed to win a seat in 2009. But most of its 1.8 million supporters were concentrated along Sumatra's central spine and in West Nusa Tenggara — not on populous Java.

The preamble to the new amendment says it was "in line with the demands and dynamics of social development," without actually spelling out what they are and why they are necessary.

It is tempting to think of this as a conspiracy, with the big parties unduly influencing the KPU. But the die was already cast when the legislation passed last April, bringing with it a heightened 3.5 percent threshold for parties to hold parliamentary seats.

The other hurdles are equally Olympian. Parties must have a regional chapter in all 34 provinces, branches in 75 percent of the 398 districts and 98 municipalities, and in 50 percent of about 5,400 sub-districts.

They must also have a minimum of 1,000 card-carrying members in each chapter and maintain permanent offices at the central, provincial and district-municipal levels during an election cycle.

The electoral law initially passed without fanfare, perhaps because Parliament was then embroiled in a heated debate over the government's plan to lower fuel subsidies. Even then, most of the focus was on whether to adopt an open-list electoral system.

Consolidation might not be such a bad thing, if not for the fact that 15 years after the fall of president Suharto's New Order regime, the established parties continue to ignore the reason they are in Parliament in the first place.

People's Consultative Assembly Speaker Taufik Kiemas, husband of Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, argues that because they will be less confused by the proliferation of choices, voters will be able to pay closer attention to party policies.

But will they really? Few parties, if any, define their beliefs and positions on important issues. Most elected politicians seem to spend more time making money for themselves and their parties than representing their undemanding constituents.

Australian academic Jamie Mackie calls it a "hydroponic mindset," pointing to the few roots parties have in the bedrock of society. In many ways, voters remain the same "floating mass" they were during the Suharto era when they were called on only every five years to legitimize the New Order regime.

Money politics exacerbates the problem. Take President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's Democrat Party, whose ranks have been decimated by corrupt practices of senior party members looking to raise money for the 2014 elections.

Parliamentary corruption, in which commissions are paid to pass legislation, has caused further widespread disillusionment — so much so that the large parties now find they have a lot of public support for imposing the new limits.

Surprisingly, there has been little public debate about government funding for parties. Such a practice might not end the graft, but it could ensure that money-grubbing isn't the huge distraction it is now, particularly with elections approaching.

Even with nine parties, Parliament's performance has been abysmal. Only 16 out of a targeted 70 new laws were passed last year, compared with 17 in 2011 and just 14 in its first year in office. Some, like the Budget, were necessary for the simple functioning of government.

It is not just quantity but also quality. Last year, the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in nearly one-third of cases where there was a legal challenge to provisions in 97 separate pieces of legislation.

Outgoing chief judge Mahfud MD, who has presidential ambitions of his own, says many were found to be legally flawed because they were the product of so-called "transactional politics." In other words, horse trading among the parties, including within the ruling coalition.

Part of the reason might be the fact that there has been a 75 percent turnover in Parliament in the last two elections. With so many greenhorn politicians — and the imperatives of paying back debts accrued during the election process — it is little wonder the House is less than productive.

Indonesia's democratic development has come to a halt. Given their hold on the existing parties, restricting new players ensures the old guard will continue to dictate the rules of the game.

By John Mcbeth Reprinted courtesy of The Straits Times

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