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Joko Widodo election campaign poster in Solo (Photo: Simon Roughneen)
Joko Widodo election campaign poster in Solo (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Proposal to end direct local elections spurs angst in Indonesia

YOGYAKARTA – The system makes the man? An exaggeration, but for Indonesia’s President-elect Joko Widodo, the system certainly helped smooth his path to become leader of the fourth most populous country in the world.

The man commonly known as “Jokowi” was elected mayor of Solo during Indonesia’s first such direct elections held in 2005.

It was the start of a political career that saw him become governor of Jakarta in 2012 and now sees him one month out from assuming Indonesia’s highest office, after winning the July 9 presidential vote.

But before Joko takes over from outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on October 20, members of parliament on September 25 will vote on whether to revert to an old system under which heads of local government – including mayors – are chosen by local lawmakers rather than directly elected by voters.

The proposed legislation is proving divisive, with the president-elect describing it as a potential setback for democracy in Indonesia.

“Me and Pak Ahok (Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, Deputy Governor of Jakarta) were born from the womb of direct democracy as the people’s choice. How can we betray people as the mother of democracy?” Joko wrote on his Facebook page.

Basuki, a Chinese-Indonesian Christian, has already quit the Great Indonesian Movement Party (Gerindra) – which is led by defeated presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto – in protest at Gerindra’s initiating the proposed change.

Since 2001, Indonesia’s de-centralised governance system has helped many local government leaders become better known and more influential than their local counterparts elected to the national parliament in Jakarta.

After seven years as the elected mayor of Solo, a town of 500,000 in central Java, Joko emerged as a national figure – elected governor of Jakarta in 2012 – before this year winning the presidential election. Joko is the first president since the fall of the army-backed Suharto dictatorship in 1998 whose political career does not date to that era.

Some heads of local government – such as Tri Rismaharini and Ridwan Kamil, mayors, respectively, of Surabaya and Bandung, Indonesia’s second- and third-largest cities – are seen as rising politicians and future national lawmakers.

“With sanctioned nominations, we would not have seen the new generation of politicians like Jokowi, Ganjar in Centra Java, Ibu Risma, the mayor of Surabaya,” said Gwenael Njoto-Feillard, an Indonesia researcher at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singpapore.

Even though Joko’s national rise is attributed to his policies as mayor of Solo, where he made the city a rival to Yogyakarta as a cultural and tourist draw in central Java, Yogyakarta Mayor H. Haryadi Suyuti is against the change.

“Let the people decide, let the people choose their own representative,” the mayor said during an interview at his office.

If the change is voted through, Indonesia’s lawmakers will be seen as out of step with voters – a setback for a country touted as the region’s most democratic, along with the Philippines.

A poll by the Indonesian Survey Circle released this month of 1,200 people in 33 provinces found 81 per cent said local leaders should be directly elected – findings mostly echoed in interviews The Edge Review carried out in Solo and in nearby Yogyakarta.

Arnold van Lutteran, an engineering student in Solo, said that ending the direct election system would damage Indonesia’s democracy.

“When you think that Jokowi could never have been president without direct elections here [in Solo], then I am totally against it,” van Lutteran said.

However, opposition to parliamentarians choosing heads of local government is not universal, even in Joko’s hometown.
Arif Sahudi, a lawyer with the Kartika Law Firm in Solo, said that he was not against the change. “We can agree with direct or not direct [elections],” Arif said.

President Yudhoyono has said he wants the system of direct elections to be retained, although he agreed with some of the claims of corruption in the system made by Gerindra.

“The reality, in 10 years, is that there were many excesses occurring in elections for governor, regent and mayor. What if we keep the direct elections system, but prevent the many excesses?” Yudhoyono said in a video posted on Youtube.

Some say the alleged excesses are overblown and pale in comparison to the horse-trading and political commerce that would ensue if the old system of local lawmakers choosing the mayors and heads of local government were revived. Others wonder if the move is a power-grab by elite politicians aghast at the rise of an outsider such as Joko – although there is no suggestion that direct national elections will be scrapped.

Fadli Zon, a confidante of Prabowo’s, told foreign media in Jakarta on September 17 that the change would cut costs and mean less opportunity for election violence.

But others speculate that the move is Prabowo’s raging against the current political system after losing to Joko, whom he helped to win the Jakarta governorship in 2012.

“Some say it is Prabowo’s way of taking revenge on Jokowi for the election loss. I would say it is probably also a way for all the power players and cronies in the Red and White coalition to still have access to the bureaucracy and its contracts. So clearly, the argument of less money-politics does not stand,” Njoto-Feillard told The Edge Review.

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