The Indonesian parliament just before the start of a recent debate on direct local elections (Photo: Simon Roughneen)The Indonesian parliament sitting in Sept. 2014. It is unlikely that lawmakers would end the country's death penalty policy for drug trafficking (Simon Roughneen)

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The Indonesian parliament just before the start of a recent debate on direct local elections (Photo: Simon Roughneen)
The Indonesian parliament just before the start of a recent debate on direct local elections (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

JAKARTA – On July 8, the day before Indonesia’s presidential election, legislators voted to amend key workings of the country’s parliament. Any other day, this would have been headline news. But the country was transfixed by the contest between Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Prabowo Subianto, then deemed too close to call but in the end won by Jokowi by a 6 per cent margin.

So the changes, significant as they were, received scant attention at the time. But now the impact of the house re-ordering is being felt and could make it more difficult for President Jokowi to implement key reforms.

The so-called “MD3” laws include putting the powerful job of House Speaker to a vote, rather than it defaulting to the biggest party. Among other changes are raising the bar for charging legislators with corruption and making it easier for them to access state money for spending in their home regions.

The House Speaker job under the old system would have gone to a legislator from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the biggest party in parliament after winning almost 19 per cent of the vote in April 2014 legislative elections.

But with Prabowo Subianto’s opposition coalition holding more than 60 per cent of seats, the new law means its nominee was a shoo-in for the job. Put to a vote on October 2, it went to Setya Novanto, a lawmaker from opposition party Golkar.

The PDI-P nominated Jokowi for president and is led by Megawati Sukarnoputri, herself a former president and daughter of Indonesia’s independence hero, Sukarno. Maintaining the dynasty, Megawati’s daughter Puan Maharani would have been the likely nominee for House Speaker. In the end Puan had to settle for a cabinet position under Jokowi, who has struggled with suspicions that his patron Megawati will exert a proprietorial influence on his presidency.

That perception has been enhanced since Jokowi last week named his 34-person cabinet, seen as a compromise with Megawati.

After losing out on the House Speaker job, as well as the chairmanships of 11 important house commissions where policies are thrashed out, the PDI-P, along with three parties in the coalition backing Jokowi, have tried to set up a shadow team, naming PDI-P’s Effendi Simbolon as unofficial house speaker.

This fit of pique led by PDI-P came after the four parties backing Jokowi’s coalition boycotted the vote for the commission jobs, gifting all positions to the opposition. It was all a shabby re-run of July 8, when the PDI-P and allied parties spurned the MD3 vote, handing Prabowo’s side a walkover.

The president seems embarrassed by his allies’ machinations, calling for “unity to set an example for the people.” But in parliament, even some of his supporters are questioning the need to cut a hefty subsidy on fuel – which accounts for a fifth of government spending – to free up revenue for other spending and boost flagging growth. Indonesia’s GDP grew by an annualized rate of just over 5 percent in the third quarter, the lowest in five years.

“Jokowi will need the parliament’s backing on various policy reforms, including the plan to get the 2015 budget amendment approved in February, to finance education and health policy reforms that have been envisaged by the new government,” Wahyudi Kumorotomo of the Department of Public Policy and Management at Gadjah Mada University, told The Edge Review.

Previous presidents have tried to include as many parties as possible in government to limit the impact of spoilers in parliament and dissolve opposition to planned reforms.

Looking back at “rainbow” governments under presidents such as Megawati and Jokowi’s predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Jonathan Chen and Keoni Indrabayu Marzuki of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University wrote that “it began to dawn that any president who did not maintain an amicable relationship with [parliament] would become a liability not only for his presidency but also for the deepening of reforms.”

Jokowi has long maintained that he would not play this patronage game, though observers wondered whether realpolitik would force the new president’s hand in the end.

With the opposition coalition holding firm for now, it seems Jokowi is set for a testing first few months in office. But given Indonesia’s fragmented parliament, maybe it was always going to be that way, said Gundy Cahyadi, an economist with DBS Bank.

“I don’t think this is specific to Jokowi. We always had the idea that whoever was going to be president would face these problems in any case.”

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