from Asia Unbound

Indonesia’s Democratic Showdown

joko widodo-2

September 22, 2014

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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In the wake of the election of Joko Widodo as Indonesia’s president, many Indonesians were hopeful that the country’s nascent democracy finally had proved its strength and that Widodo, known to all as Jokowi, would be able to build on his election and leave a legacy of dramatic political reform. After all, Jokowi was the first president who came from politics in the post-Suharto era, and he was also the first president to have risen up in politics organically rather than through elite political maneuvering—he had emerged as a national politician partly as a result of the decentralization Indonesia undertook a decade ago that allowed for direct elections. Jokowi had risen from mayor of Solo, where he delivered effective governance, to mayor of Jakarta, and finally to presidential candidate. He had the strongest credentials as a democrat of any leader in modern Indonesian history.

During the actual voting and counting period, Indonesia’s democracy also appeared to prove its strength. Despite multiple attempts by the campaign of rival presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto to subvert the voting and counting process and suggest that Jokowi had not won the most votes, which Jokowi clearly had done, Prabowo’s attempts failed. Potential fraud by Prabowo failed to shift the election, attempts by the Prabowo campaign to intimidate the election commission and highest court to throw out the election had no impact, and Jokowi supporters rallied, in public and on social media, to support their candidate, reinforce the idea that all Indonesian votes count equally, and buck up the election commission and highest court to make the correct decision. This support for democracy clearly played a role in ensuring Jokowi’s victory was upheld.

However, in the wake of the election it still appears that Indonesian democracy remains under threat from retrograde politicians who still do not trust the Indonesian people to select the best candidates. Shortly after the election was upheld, Prabowo’s coalition in parliament, which controls far more legislators than Jokowi’s coalition, announced they would launch legislation ending direct election of most local and provincial leaders, which had been a key aspect of Indonesia’s successful decentralization process. These direct elections had not only empowered people across the archipelago, putting them more in touch with politics than they had been when Jakarta ruled everything, but helped create a new group of political leaders, like Jokowi. These leaders ran for local positions, demonstrated their leadership skills, and then graduated to national politics. In this way, decentralization began the emasculation of the Jakarta political and military elites who had dominated politics since Indonesian independence. The decentralization process has been praised by a wide range of outside analysts (including this author) as a model for other developing nations.

The bill on direct elections would replace direct elections with a mechanism in which assemblies across the country would choose local leaders. This would be a disaster for Indonesian democracy, as the bill would essentially allow a few provincial and national elites to choose local leaders. A recent poll by the respected Indonesian Survey Circle showed that about eighty percent of Indonesians, across the country, support the idea of direct elections—and thus would oppose the bill.  Legislators will vote on this bill on September 25. Will Indonesian supporters of democracy come out into the streets and on social media to oppose this bill, and maintain decentralization, as fervently as they came out for Jokowi?

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