Last week, I warned that the passage of a proposed law by Indonesia’s parliament that would end direct elections of local officials would be a major blow to Indonesian democracy. The legislation had been championed by the most retrograde elements in Indonesia, and in particular by the party of the losing presidential candidate in this past July’s election, Prabowo Subianto. Direct election of local and provincial officials had been a critical post-Suharto reform, a major part of Indonesia’s decentralization process, and a vital element of political empowerment. Direct elections had helped create a new group of younger Indonesian political leaders who actually had to serve their local publics or—horrors!—risk being booted out of office, and it also (somewhat) shifted the political balance of power away from Jakarta and out across the archipelago. Such a process of decentralization only made sense in a vast and diverse country. Allowing for more local and provincial elections did increase the possibility of graft in holding more polls, as I noted in my book Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline in Representative Government. But, for most Indonesians, this was a reasonable price to pay to (generally) get more responsive local government. And in any event, earlier methods of selecting local leaders—basically, they were hand-chosen by Suharto and his allies—still had led to enormous amounts of rent-seeking.
But Jakarta elites—the business, political, and defense elites who had dominated Indonesian politics for decades, going back to the Suharto era—always resented the direct election law and the decentralization in general. Prabowo, who had been married to Suharto’s daughter, and his party, during this year’s presidential campaign made no secret of the fact that they thought Indonesia had gone too far in embracing liberal democracy, and that average Indonesians were not suited for deciding about who should lead them. During the campaign, Prabowo and his party embraced an earlier, more authoritarian Indonesian idea of “guided democracy” in which elites essentially managed the country and allowed sham elections to justify their rule. (Expect to see something similar emerge in the post-coup period in Thailand today.)
Prabowo and his party, during the campaign, also had championed the idea that Indonesia needed a strong central government and a powerful, one-man leadership. These ideas were in tune with an older conception of Indonesian politics and “Asian values,” but which seemed thoroughly outdated today to many Indonesians who had grown up in the post-Suharto era and who had witnessed the process of decentralization and no longer relied on a few big broadcast networks (which were generally pro-Prabowo) to get their news.
So, Prabowo lost, and former Jakarta and Solo mayor Joko Widodo, who had come up in Indonesian politics precisely because of direct elections, became the next president of Indonesia. But last week, during the last days of the current Indonesian parliament in a vote held with little debate and little transparency, legislators led by Prabowo’s party succeeded in passing the bill ending local elections. As during the election campaign, leaders in Prabowo’s party once again claimed that liberal democracy was not suited for Indonesia and that the bill, which would basically hand selection of local leaders back to a handful of elites, was more suited to Indonesian politics and culture. In other words—"you Indonesians aren’t smart enough to pick your leaders."
Indonesians don’t seem to agree. Surveys show that about 80 percent of Indonesians want to retain direct elections.
Shamefully, current Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) and his Democratic Party, despite holding the largest number of seats in parliament, basically did nothing to stop the passage of this retrograde law. Instead, most of the Democrats just walked out of parliament before the vote occurred, essentially allowing the bill to pass, while SBY, whose reformist credentials have slipped badly in his second term, said after the bill was passed that he would not allow it. Unfortunately, Indonesia’s political system does not work like that of the United States, and SBY cannot just veto the law; if he actually opposed it, he should have stood up in public in early September and campaigned aggressively against the bill. He also could have rallied his Democrats to stay in parliament and vote with legislator who opposed the bill, bringing it to defeat. But SBY did neither. And by leaving parliament before the vote, the Democrats all but ensured that the bill would win passage, since Prabowo’s allies controlled a majority in parliament once the Democrats walked out. (Five Democratic legislators did not join the walkout, stayed, and voted against the bill.)
The direct election bill might seem just like sour grapes from Prabowo, who tried all manner of dirty tricks to steal the presidential election and, afterwards, refused to concede to Jokowi even though Prabowo had clearly lost. Having been prepared by his elite family his entire life to ascend to the presidency, Prabowo seems to be having a difficult time accepting the ultimate prize will not be his. But the bill means far, far more than sour grapes; if it is not overturned by Indonesia’s highest court, the law could seriously cripple Indonesian democracy and ensure that a Jokowi-type leader never ascends to the presidency again. In a country that has set the standard for successful democratization for developing nations around the world, that would be more than a shame—it would be a disaster.