Thursday, October 6, 2011

Indonesia's election machinery

AT LOEWY’S, the South Jakarta hangout favoured by the city's glitterati, the atmosphere is distinctly boom-time. An odd but amiable population of Australian miners, local soap-opera stars, foreign diplomats, and minor tycoons rule the roost. The impression is leisurely, if colonial—waiters in black aprons bow obsequiously—and the sound of traffic in the outdoor section has been banished, a minor miracle in Jakarta.

Indonesia’s consumer bonanza has drawn Loewy’s many foreign businessmen, for whom the country’s burgeoning middle class is looking like a goldmine. Even more recently, the place is looking like a pillar of economic stability, against the backdrop of distant conflagrations in European. Don’t say it too loudly, but the outperformance has been mostly accidental. The consumer boom was the gift of an economy that could no longer de-lever, come the crisis of 2008—total banking-system assets had been falling since 1999 and the credit cycle was bound to turn. A commodity binge in East Asia also made a timely appearance. But Indonesia tends to get credit at least for political stability. If “anybody would have asked myself and many others in ’98 or ’99 whether or not Indonesia was going to Balkanise, or disintegrate, it would have been tough to disagree, because at the time it was very gloomy,” the country’s own investor relations chief, Gita Wirjawan, admitted recently. The political fortitude of the Indonesian republic has been upheld since then, and many think its democracy an exemplar for the rest of the world. It’s true too that the Indonesian elections in 1999 and 2004 were notable for their order, transparency and overall legitimacy.

How alarming then, that the country’s political stability is being re-evaluated, at least by one long-time observer. The 2009 contest was marred by significant chaos, a lack of transparency, and would have triggered far larger issues if the incumbent president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, had not won his victory by such a commanding margin, argues Adam Schmidt in a recent essay, “Indonesia’s 2009 Elections: Performance Challenges and Negative Precedents”. Mr Schmidt is the Indonesia chief of the International Foundations for Electoral Systems, which monitors this sort of thing. The post-Yudhoyono era is likely to yield closer outcomes and a prolonged and contested affair might dispel the delightful aura of promise that hangs in the air at Loewy’s.

The most contentious issues in the 2009 vote were errors in the voter registry. The large-scale omission of some eligible voters and the botched records of others in effect disenfranchised anywhere from ‘hundreds of thousands of Indonesians to tens of millions”, according to Mr Schmidt. The losing candidates filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court, which only dismissed calls for a rerun on the grounds that Mr Yudhoyono had won by a wide margin. A closer result would have exposed the judges to greater public scrutiny, potentially politicising the issue and calling into question the contest’s legitimacy.

A second indication of 2009’s election chaos was the large number of invalid votes that were cast—around 14.4% of the total (compared to 8.8% in 2004.) Invalid votes exceeded those received by the third highest-ranking party (PDIP’s 14.03%)—and were only slightly below the votes cast by the second-placed party (Golkar’s 14.45%).

Voters were flummoxed by the electoral commission’s decree to that the ballot be marked with a pen (mencontreng) rather than by punching a hole in the ballot paper (mencoblos), as had been done in the past. Though a relatively minor change, the commission chose to maintain such a rigid interpretation of voter intent as to disqualify a large number of votes. This will happen again in 2014 if the commission continues its tradition of not explaining new procedures to the public particularly well.

Finally, the vote-counting process was not as transparent as it should have been. At the polling-station level, things worked fine, but the process by which the results reached the next administrative level were opaque. Mr Schmidt noticed that many of the forms had been crossed out and re-entered at various stages and that this was not really explained. Could manipulation be at work? Certainly some candidates for the legislative elections thought so, and complained that the final tallies did not reflect results reported by polling stations.
Many Indonesians will dismiss these concerns as quibbles—most will never have even heard of them. And it’s not wrong to say that the bigger story was the massive voter turnout in a peaceful poll marked by lively political exchanges. But to what extent were major flaws covered up by Mr Yudhoyono’s thumping victory? Surely it is worrying that, according to at least this one account, 2009 fell short of many the same voting standards that had been achieved in 2004. A prolonged, disputed outcome in 2014 could turn procedural wobbles into a bigger political crisis. The Economist

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