Ruling Party the Only Significant Loser in Indonesia’s Parliamentary Elections

Ruling Party the Only Significant Loser in Indonesia’s Parliamentary Elections
Photo: Man voting in Indonesia, July 8, 2009 (Australia Department of Foreign Affairs photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license).
By the numbers at least, there was plenty at stake in Indonesia’s April 9 parliamentary elections. On that single day, more than 200,000 candidates contested almost 20,000 seats in 532 legislatures across the country. But to what extent were these elections a referendum on the sitting government? What do the elections tell us about the July presidential election and Indonesia’s future political landscape? And what do they reveal about the state of democracy in Indonesia? The only significant loser on election day was Partai Demokrat (PD), President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s party, which won approximately 9 percent of the national parliamentary vote—a sharp decline from the 21 percent it won in the 2009 elections. PD has been wracked by a series of high-profile corruption scandals since 2011. With corruption topping the list of most pre-election surveys of key voter concerns, the drop in the PD’s support was clearly an indictment of the party and a vote for change. This verdict on the existing government trumped Indonesian voters’ general lack of party affiliation; they tend to vote based more on the characteristics of individual candidates than on party backing under Indonesia’s open-list proportional system. While the elections clearly shuffled Indonesia’s political deck, they delivered no knock-out blows or clear victories. PD felt the sting of voter dissatisfaction, but the party still won more votes than it did in the 2004 elections and will remain significant as the fourth- or fifth-largest party of the 10 in parliament once the final results are announced. Predictions of a precipitous decline in the overall vote for the five Islamic parties were off the mark as well. Collectively, these parties maintained their share of around 30 percent of the total vote. Individually, Islamic parties such as PAN and PKB demonstrated remarkable resilience and some campaign savvy. Meanwhile, although PDI-P won the most seats for the first time since 1999, the widely predicted “Jokowi effect”—a late surge in votes for PDI-P after the party nominated popular Jakarta governor Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi) as its presidential candidate weeks before the election—did not materialize. This all makes for intriguing politicking in the weeks remaining before the presidential election on July 9. Presidential and vice presidential candidates can only be officially nominated by a party or coalition of parties that wins at least 25 percent of the national vote or 20 percent of the seats in the national parliament. No party has or will cross this threshold, so coalitions are inevitable. Two presidential candidates—Jokowi and Prabowo Subianto—clearly lead the field in terms of popularity. Their parties, PDI-P and Gerindra, respectively, did well in the elections and are in the driver’s seat in coalition negotiations. With official nominations due by May 18-20, these negotiations are well underway. In less than two years in office as Jakarta governor, Jokowi already has an impressive track record. His administration has initiated health care and education for Jakarta’s poorest citizens and started work on the capital’s subway, an effort to tackle Jakarta’s notorious traffic jams. But even seasoned political observers have trouble divining his platform for the upcoming elections. Prabowo has offered a more comprehensive—and what many consider to be nationalist—vision for the future via his “Six-Point Action Plan to Transform the Nation.” Observers note that this vision lacks specifics, but the main concerns with his campaign more often relate to his past. The two leading presidential candidates offer vastly different styles of leadership, each channeling important elements of popular sentiment. Surveys suggest that a proportion of Indonesia’s voters are looking for a president who is tough and decisive. This could favor Prabowo, who played up his military background during the campaign. But voters in greater numbers are also tired of the arrogance and corruption of elected officials, which helps to explain Jokowi’s popularity. For now, it is hard to tell what the April elections mean for Indonesia’s future. The winning candidates have not yet been announced, and Indonesia’s parties are not known for detailed policy platforms or for adhering to the thin programs they do formulate. And the two leading presidential candidates are untested in national office. What is clear is that the next parliament is likely to be fractured, with more parties (rising from nine to 10), a more even distribution of seats among these parties and no strong basis for cohesive legislative coalitions. The necessity of ad hoc coalitions to nominate presidential candidates means deals will be struck. The sum of those deals, which will start to become apparent over the coming weeks and months, will indicate the likely bent of the next government. Indonesia’s recent elections may offer a glimmer of hope for those who worry about the country’s democratic foundations. Indonesians, in general, remain strongly supportive of democracy. Despite low public confidence in elected officials, Indonesia’s voter turnout actually increased for the first time in 15 years, building on already impressive numbers. Despite concerns about the integrity of elections in parts of Aceh and Papua, there was no significant boycott or interruption of the elections. The primary concern, with Indonesia’s elections and its governance in general, remains corruption, which colors elections from top to bottom: from candidates buying votes for as little as $2, to intraparty rigging of the count facilitated by lower-tier electoral officials, to bribery of the chief justice of the Constitutional Court—the institution trusted to resolve electoral results disputes—to rig rulings even for local-level executive elections. Corrupt candidates make for corrupt officials, and they continue to influence a significant minority of voters through financial incentives. Voters may take money from candidates, but they don’t like wholesale corruption. PD paid the price in the April elections for not sufficiently addressing the problem in the country and within its own ranks. The legitimacy of Indonesia’s elected officials—and the quality of Indonesia’s democracy—depends on improving transparency and accountability of government above all else. Andrew Thornley is a program director for The Asia Foundation in Indonesia. He can be reached at The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation. Photo: Man voting in Indonesia, July 8, 2009 (Australia Department of Foreign Affairs photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license).

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