Politics in Indonesia is about to become a whole lot more interesting. Late last Friday while President SBY was in DC –after addressing the UN Global Climate Change Summit in NY–Indonesia’s Parliament voted to end the direct election of district heads, mayors, and provincial governors. Touted in 2004 as a further improvement and maturation of Indonesia’s democracy, the system produced President-elect Joko Widodo, who won two elections as mayor of Surakarta and one as governor of the special province of Jakarta. It also raised the costs of elections, led to increased vote-buying and patronage behavior. Some directly elected officials were arrested and convicted for corruption but others became stars and brought needed services to their constituents. The law, intended to curtail these excesses, originated in SBY’s Home Affairs Ministry but did not have much support until after the July 9 Presidential election and the defeat of Prabowo Subianto. Prabowo’s coalition of parties could only pass the bill in the current session with the support of SBY’s party (Partai Demokrat). That support came in a midnight walkout of most of the party’s members when their proposed 10 amendments to the bill (including the preservation of direct elections) were not included as a voting option. SBY had gone on the record recently in support of direct elections (with the proposed changes to the current law added to lessen their costs and reduce “money politics”) but it is not clear what role he had in his party’s abstention. Rumors, of course, are rife in Indonesia. It will take time for this to be fully analyzed.
In any case, over the weekend SBY (according to the Jakarta Globe) began steps to repair the damage and this morning he announced he would issue a Presidential Regulation to annul the bill after signing it into law. (Indonesia’s Presidents do not have veto power; bills passed by Parliament automatically become law after 30 days if there is no signature). Presidential regulations have the force of law and remain in force until invalidated by Parliament; the President is hoping the Parliament that takes its place on October 3 will walk back the law and include the 10 amendments that were never voted on.
The outcry from certain segments of the public that democracy has been killed seem exaggerated. Indonesia has a process and the law was passed constitutionally. There remain many voters who believe in a more consensual and less fractious style of politics that characterized the country in the past. However, recent polls have indicated strong support for direct elections. If SBY’s gambit fails, Indonesia’s voters still retain the ability to bring back the direct election system. Speculation exists that the supporters of indirect elections also intend to change the direct election of the President although no legislation has yet been proposed. If true, that move likely has even less public support. Certainly this victory emboldens the coalition opposed to President-elect Jokowi and could effect his ability to gain legislative support for the reforms he believes will move the economy forward. But, the story is evolving, it may have further twists in the months ahead.