Monday, September 8, 2014

Indonesian Politics: Blocking the Winner

WHEN, on the night of Indonesia's presidential election, all reliable quick counts showed Joko Widodo, universally known as Jokowi, defeating Prabowo Subianto by around five percentage points, Mr Prabowo (pictured above) refused to concede. Wait for the country's election commission to announce the official results, he said; some quick counts (done, for the most part, by pollsters nobody had heard of, and broadcast on television networks owned by his backer) showed him winning. When the election commission announced that Jokowi had won not by five points, but by six, Mr Prabowo challenged the results before the country's constitutional court, alleging massive electoral fraud. The court sided unanimously with Jokowi, granting none of Mr Prabowo's demands, but he has still refused to concede, even though the court's ruling is, by law, final and binding. He vowed to continue his fight in parliament—though nobody quite knew what that meant, and Mr Prabowo was starting to bear an unfortunate thematic resemblance to Monty Python's Black Knight.

Analysis from Reformasi, an Indonesia-based consultancy, elucidates the shape of Mr Prabowo's fight. The first step is a fig-leaf: parliamentary allies of Mr Prabowo authorised the convening of a "Pansus", or special committee, to investigate the election their man claims to have been cheated out of winning. It's a fig-leaf for two reasons. First, because the special committee cannot begin its work until approved by a full parliamentary vote and its writ runs out when parliament adjourns on September 30th, meaning it will be active for well under a month. And second, because even if it finds evidence of systemic and sizable election fraud that has so far eluded the country's election committee and its constitutional court, it can do nothing about it. Only the constitutional court has power to overturn an election, and it already made its final and binding ruling.

The committee's real function is to provide cover for Mr Prabowo and his allies to mount a procedural assault on Jokowi. This is happening, first, at the provincial level. Jokowi-backing parties hold a minority of seats in Jakarta's provincial assembly, as they will in Indonesia's parliament after his inauguration. His opponents in the assembly, Reformasi warns, have yet to accept his resignation as Jakarta's governor, which they must do in order for him to take office as president. The Jakarta Globe points out a precedent for such behaviour: the assembly refused to accept the resignation of the deputy governor preceding Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, usually known as Ahok, Jakarta's current deputy and likely successor to Jokowi as governor; he was forced to remain in office for around six months after he submitted his resignation. The Globe quotes a former legislator from a party allied with Mr Prabowo who says Jokowi will have to agree to a "political compromise" with his opponents in the assembly, but he does not really mean compromise: there is no middle ground for Jokowi to reach between the binaries of resignation and non-resignation. He means Jokowi will have to give his opponents something—less a compromise than a sop.

The question now is whether Jokowi will give in, or call his opponents' bluff. Part of his appeal as a candidate was his distance from the usual suspects of Indonesian politics and their horse-trading. But such aloofness is easier to maintain in words as a candidate than in actions as a governor. Politics—particularly legislative politics, and most particularly legislative politics in a large country with many competing interests—is a dirty game; however principled the politician, he cannot hope to play without getting a little bit muddy. Jokowi appears likely to backtrack, at least partly, in the face of political reality on his pledges to streamline the cabinet from 34 to 27 ministers and to staff it exclusively with technocrats rather than party hacks. In this fight, however, he may have more leverage. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia's current president, will step down on October 20th. It is unfathomable that the world's fourth-largest country, having just concluded the world's largest single-day election freely and fairly and with a winner holding a sizable popular mandate, would actually be left leaderless on October 21st because of a provincial assembly's stalling tactic.

The more worrying procedural battle is at the national level, where parties allied with Mr Prabowo in parliament appear to have pulled together a clear majority to back scrapping direct elections for regional heads (provincial governors, city mayors and district chiefs). These positions have been directly elected since 2005; Indonesia's parliament proposes to return elections to regional assemblies, or DPRDs, which chose regional heads from 1999 through 2004. The move to popular elections has proven, well, popular; regional-assembly elections, Reformasi explains, were "particularly disastrous, as rampant money politics and vote-buying occurred and recurred in votes in DPRDs. Candidates routinely faced demands for bribes from parties in exchange for their election, and this ensured that elected regional heads would need to generate illicit flows of cash to repay DPRD members. Meanwhile, parties could continue to extort additional payments by threatening to revoke a regional head’s mandate." Opponents of regional elections complain that they are expensive, a problem that could be resolved by holding them at the same time as presidential contests, and yield too few quality candidates: a complaint that seems unfair given that they have only gone through two cycles, and in many places have featured the same sort of party-backed hacks that DRPD contests would produce.

Direct elections provided Jokowi his road to the presidency: he defeated a party favourite for the Jakarta governorship, who almost certainly would have won had the election been held only among DPRD members, and as a presidential candidate had the backing of fewer parties than his rival. And one of the most lasting and salutary effects of Jokowi's presidency, one well beyond anything he may accomplish in his five or ten years in office, is his blazing of this trail, and the chance that he may inspire other Indonesians of humble background but strong resolve to enter electoral politics, and focus not on amassing bribes or cultivating contacts or flattering the powerful, but on good governance, and improving constituents' lives—on public service, in the true sense of that unfortunately hollowed-out phrase. Which, of course, is why the relics of the old order, led by Mr Prabowo, had to oppose them.

No one expects Mr Prabowo and his allies to provide a rubber stamp for Jokowi's policies, nor would Indonesia be well-served, in the long-term, by their doing so. Opposition parties must oppose. If Mr Prabowo and his allies believe fuel subsidies should be kept, for instance, there is a case to be made, and by all means they can and should make it. But there is a difference between opposing a candidate's policies, and making the case to the public why they are wrong, harmful or otherwise undesirable, and using the institutions of democracy—particularly a democracy as hard-won as Indonesia's—to wage a procedural battle that disenfranchises voters and is solely intended to frustrate and damage a popularly-elected president. The Economist


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