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INDONESIA: Local Elections

Author: Esther Pan
July 12, 2005

What is the significance of Indonesia's local elections?

They are the first direct elections for district and provincial leaders in the world's most populous Muslim country. Indonesia held its first direct elections for president and parliament in 2004, and experts say this year's local elections could cement the establishment of democracy in the country. "These local elections are extraordinarily important," says Jeffrey Hadler, assistant professor of South and Southeast Asian studies at the University of California, Berkeley. "They will give people a real sense of democracy in action," he says. "We'll see which local party officials have done a good job."

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What is the time frame for the elections?

They will run over a period of five years. During this time, each of Indonesia's 32 provinces will elect provincial governors, and each of the country's more than 450 districts will choose mayors and district heads, known as walikota and bupati respectively. The elections are staggered due to the difficulty of organizing simultaneous polls among the nation's 224 million people, spread over 17,000 islands. Experts say the results of these votes are important, both for local representation and future political positioning. "The party that dominates local elections will have a head start in the general [presidential and parliamentary] elections in 2009," says Leonard Sebastian, senior fellow and coordinator of the Indonesia Program at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.

How will these polls work?

Each candidate will run in his or her local district, many on a slate with a running mate. The candidates with the best chance of success, experts say, will run on slates nominated by political parties, which have the support structure to aid their campaigns. Some experts say the major parties have too much influence in the local races. "Local elections seem to have become another channel for parties in their quest for influence," Sebastian says.

How do these elections mark a break from the past?

General Suharto--who, like many Indonesians, used only one name--took power from Sukarno, the first leader of post-colonial Indonesia, in 1966. Suharto ran the country as a dictator until 1998, when he was overthrown by a popular uprising. Under Suharto's rule, the country's local leaders were appointed by the Department of Home Affairs in the capital, Jakarta. "Many of them were not even from the districts they ran, and functioned more as agents of the central government than as representatives of the people," says Roderick Brazier, assistant Indonesia country representative for the Asia Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports democracy and development in Asia. Many experts say Indonesians are hopeful that decentralizing power to the regions will improve accountability and the delivery of services from their elected representatives. Elections for local leaders in small villages and districts, where everyone knows each other, will hinge on "real personality politics," Hadler says, and the quality of the candidates will likely matter more than the party they belong to.

How were Indonesia's leaders chosen before 2004?

Under Suharto, Indonesians voted for political parties, not individuals. Parties then awarded slots to candidates on their slates based on the percentage of the vote the party won. Often local voters didn't even know which candidates would represent them until their local officials were appointed. Members of parliament, who took their seats in this manner, selected the president. In 2004, Indonesia modified its system to hold direct elections for president. However, members of parliament are still elected from national party lists.

Which major political parties are contesting?

Indonesia's two most powerful political parties are secular, although Islamic parties have seen strong gains in the last few years.

The secular parties are:

  • Golkar. A technocratic party with strong support from government bureaucrats, this is the party most connected to former ruler Suharto. Many Suharto loyalists from the time of his rule, known as the New Order period, still hold leadership positions in Golkar. Experts say Golkar, which continues to be tremendously influential, will likely hold onto power and protect business interests instead of offering any real reform. In many rural areas outside of Java, the most populous Indonesian island, "Golkar still has the strongest party machine," Hadler says.
  • PDI-P, or Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle. The nationalist party of Sukarno, PDI-P is now led by his daughter, immediate-past president Megawati Sukarnoputri. The party has a strong power base in central Java, where the capital, Jakarta, is located. Experts say Megawati still holds a grudge against current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono--a former member of her Cabinet who defeated her in the 2004 election--which may limit PDI-P's ability to work effectively with his government. Critics say the party is a cult of personality for the Sukarno family and charge that it is has not been able to modernize or build effective political structures, particularly outside of Jakarta. "The party is struggling to stay united and be more than a Megawati fan club," Brazier says.

The main Islamic parties are:

  • PAN, or National Mandate Party. This party was founded by Amien Rais, a university professor who also headed Muhammadiyah, a massive Islamic social welfare organization that provides community services--including healthcare and education--to its members, who are mostly middle class, urban, and educated. Rais also helped establish the Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals, which aimed to influence the governments of both Suharto and his hand-picked successor, B.J. Habibie. The party has struggled to broaden its appeal to the rural poor with little success; critics say its influence is fading.
  • PPP, United Development Party. Under Suharto's rule, all Indonesian politicians considered Islamists--those who wanted Islam to play a stronger role in political life--had to join one party, the PPP, says Joseph Errington, a Yale anthropology professor who studies language and identity in Indonesia. The PPP leaders were once energetic opposition figures, but have now become "professional politicians," he says. While the PPP emphasizes Islamic morals and principles, it has not pursued a traditional Islamist agenda; for example, it has not tried to increase the role of sharia, or Islamic law, in Indonesian society.
  • PKB, National Awakening Party. The political wing of Nahdlatul Ulama, PKB is the country's other main Islamic social welfare organization, with a huge following in East and Central Java. Former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid, who served from 1999 to 2001, was a PKB member; he was dismissed by parliament in July 2001 on charges of corruption and incompetence. Since then, the party has had a leadership vacuum, experts say. "The [PKB's] goal was to unseat Suharto, his family, and his cronies," Errington says. Once that happened, experts say, the PKB--like many opposition parties--struggled with actually governing.
  • PKS, Prosperous Justice Party. A young, dynamic party with an Islamist outlook, the PKS made great gains in the 2004 parliamentary elections. It has strong support on the western island of Sumatra. The party says it supports diversity, openness, and freedom of religion, and has won widespread respect for its disciplined organization and strong anti-corruption message. Experts say, however, it is not yet clear if the PKS is really as tolerant as its members claim, or if a more restrictive agenda will emerge more strongly in the future.
How influential are Indonesia's Islamist parties?

For the nearly 90 percent of its citizens who are Muslim, Indonesia has always had its own inclusive version of Islam, experts say, rooted in local traditions and very different from the hardline Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia. Most mainstream politicians, whether practicing Muslims or not, favor either secular government or an Indonesian compromise that respects Islam but also protects the country's diversity and plurality. While Islamist parties have gained popularity recently for vowing to deliver services and clean up corruption, many experts say there is little allure for ordinary citizens in radical calls for violence or jihad. "People want results. The thing to be worrying about right now is not Islam, but delivery," Errington says.

What is the current role of the military in politics?

The Indonesian army, which played a central role in national politics under Suharto, has accepted a more limited role without putting up too much of a fight, Brazier says. However, the army's support is still critical to Yudhoyono, a former general, "since [he's] one of their own," Sebastian says. The military's leaders are trying to build a modern and professional force, but experts say their efforts have moved slowly due to a lack of government funds.

What problems have affected the elections?

A massive corruption scandal has rocked the country's General Election Commission since April, when election commissioner Mulyana Kusuma was caught bribing a state auditor to keep quiet about bribes received by the election commission during last year's presidential vote. So far, investigations have revealed the commission took some $2.1 million in bribes to give out preferential contracts to suppliers of ink, ballot papers, and ballot boxes in last year's election. This national scandal has not directly affected preparations for local elections, but it highlights the uphill battle faced by Indonesians--including President Yudhoyono, who made fighting corruption the centerpiece of his campaign--who seek a more honest government.

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