A bill that will transfer the election of local leaders in Indonesia from the people to the Regional Legislative Councils is currently being contested. The Indonesian parliament passed the bill to end direct local elections on 26 September. But outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono announced on 30 September that he is preparing an emergency presidential decree to overturn the decision and restore elections. Direct elections at the local level — or Pilkada — have been in place since June 2005.
Proponents of the abolition of direct local elections cite the high cost of state funding as well as uncooperative regional heads once elected. The controversial bill, if it is not overturned, will take effect less than a month before the inauguration of president-elect Joko Widodo (Jokowi), himself a beneficiary of the Pilkada system.
Support for the bill has been increasingly linked with partisan interests. The Merah Putih coalition, led by losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, supports the bill, although some of its members, including the National Mandate Party (PAN) and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), have flip-flopped over the issue. The most vociferous opponents of the bill are led by Jokowi’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle. Opponents of the Pilkada system invariably point to the financial burden and inefficiencies the state will have to bear if it organises elections at all levels.
A 2012 study estimated that the average cost of holding an election in a city/municipality and a province amounts to approximately 25 billion rupiah (about US$2.1 million) and 100 billion rupiah (US$8.2 million) respectively. According to a study by Tempo magazine, a gubernatorial candidate with the money to spare can be expected to pay up to 40 billion rupiah (about US$3.3 million) for consultancy services.
With provincial, districts, sub-districts and municipality elections held simultaneously in five-year phases, money politics — and especially rent-seeking practices — in the midst of organising campaigns has been a major cause for concern. With aspirations for greater political power and largesse motivating some local candidates, there has been a fragmentation of provinces and districts in recent years. Since 1999, the number of provinces has risen from 26 to 34, while districts almost doubled from 292 to 483 by early 2007.
Political decentralisation via direct voting on the whole has benefited democratisation in Indonesia, but its intended purpose has not always been evenly achieved. In some cases, competitive local elections have been problematic. Local elections do not, in themselves, guarantee that decentralised power operates democratically.
Recent cases have emerged of networks of decentralised political dynasties exploiting the Pilkada system to their advantage. Patrimonial alliances with strong links to dominant party patrons, including the increasing presence of familial politics, are becoming the norm even at the local level.
Local elections and greater regional autonomy have also led to a new emphasis on the significance of the local. In some instances, this has benefited the few constituencies that were formerly ill-represented and neglected. But in other cases it has led to greater polarisation, which has challenged the communal balances between different ethnic and religious groups. In particular, the growing implementation of local religious by-laws in certain regions threatens to undermine the democratic fabric that the Pilkada system provides.
Proponents of the Pilkada system in general believe that the gains in democratic capital more than make up for the inefficiencies of the system. While money politics and corruption remain a perennial scourge to any democratisation and decentralisation process, direct local elections on the whole have a stimulating effect on the economy.
If direct regional elections are removed, accountability and sovereignty will ultimately rest with the government in power rather than the people. In most instances, direct elections at local levels have led to greater participation on the ground. Direct elections have forced local candidates to appeal directly to their constituents rather than pandering to the elites.
Also, reverting to the Regional Legislative Council system may not reduce the state’s financial burden but instead encourage more money politics to take place at the regional level. The Pilkada, despite its enduring flaws, still acts reasonably well as a check on potential predatory interests.
More importantly, the Pilkada system has yielded several outstanding candidates at all levels of government such as Tri Rismaharini, the mayor of Surabaya, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the deputy governor of Jakarta, Ganjar Pranowo, governor of Central Java and president-elect Jokowi.
Surveys so far have shown that the majority of the Indonesian population is not in favour of abolishing the Pilkada system completely. A recent poll by the Indonesian Survey Circle showed that more than 81 per cent of participants felt that a local leader must be elected directly by the people without any interference from the Regional Legislative Councils.
At a strategic level, direct elections are more beneficial to some political parties than others. Smaller outfits like PKS and PAN stand to gain from the Pilkada system but were nonetheless compelled to toe the line of their coalition. Surprisingly, even the Gerindra Party had been a huge beneficiary of the Pilkada — its overall good performance at the recent legislative elections was the result of sustained grassroots efforts that began with courting the local vote.
The sharpening partisan divide between the pro-Prabowo and pro-Jokowi coalitions has been at the forefront of the recent heated debates over the Pilkada. Given that the Pilkada system had served Indonesia’s democracy relatively well, it would be a pity if it is abolished for the sake of the partisan divide.
Jonathan Chen and Adhi Priamarizki are Associate Research Fellows at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU).