Restoring Indonesia’s Direct Regional Elections: Stability in a Divided Society

President Joko Widodo’s first selfie at the palace, taken with campaign volunteers (Credit: Wall Street Journal).

Memo #317

Indonesian President Pak Joko Widodo must fight to reinstate direct regional elections to maintain social stability.

By Matthew J. Bock – m.bock [at] alumni.ubc.ca and Geoffrey Macdonald – gpmacdonald [at] gmail.com

Bock2Macdonald_Geoffrey_photoJoko Widodo, referred to as Jokowi, was inaugurated as Indonesia’s seventh president on October 20, 2014. President Jokowi represents a new era of leadership in Indonesia with his boots-on-the ground style and love of selfies—and because he does not originate from Indonesia’s political elite. But he has inherited a problem that may threaten Indonesia’s social stability: the end of direct regional elections.

On September 26, Indonesia’s House of Representatives voted to end direct elections for mayors, provincial governors, and district heads, the last of which hold significant power in Indonesia’s decentralized democracy. Regional leaders will now be elected by regional legislative councils.

Direct or decentralized regional elections are important because they can promote responsiveness to voters’ needs. Within Indonesia’s corrupt and opaque political environment, accountability mechanisms are critical. Indirect elections remove voters’ ability to punish regional leaders or their parliamentary advocates, who often align in corrupt coalitions of convenience to select regional heads. Moreover, indirect elections effectively block candidates with popular support from entering the marketplace of free elections.

The implications these changes may have on governance and service delivery are important, but the longer-term social repercussions also require attention. Distributing power to the local level provided a voice to conflict-prone ethnic and religious minorities after Suharto’s fall. Decentralizing electoral and political power helped mitigate conflict by giving these groups more control over their daily lives.

Power decentralization and moderate politics work together. Electoral competition over newly localized power has made Indonesian politicians more likely to campaign on and respond to local concerns, such as health care or resettlement. In a deeply divided society, encouraging inclusive, policy-oriented national parties—as opposed to divisive, ethnic parties—reduces conflict. In fact, as decentralization has been institutionalized in Indonesia campaign rhetoric has increasingly focused on moderate policy proposals across elections.

Thus, with this re-centralization of power, Indonesian politics not only becomes less accountable, but also potentially loses the moderation generated by forcing parties to placate local concerns. As ethnic and religious groups lose their stake in the democratic process, the likelihood of conflict increases. President Jokowi and the PDI-P must fight to retain Indonesia’s decentralization laws.

Geoffrey Macdonald is an assistant professor of political science at Grinnell College, Iowa, USA.

Matthew J. Bock is a former research fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta

 

President Joko Widodo’s first selfie at the palace, taken with campaign volunteers (Credit: Wall Street Journal).
President Joko Widodo’s first selfie at the palace, taken with campaign volunteers (Credit: Wall Street Journal).

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