Democracy in Indonesia – Reverting to Indirect Regional Elections

One of the world’s largest democracies, Indonesia has guaranteed society’s freedom of speech and political rights. However, its public officials are not immune to the risk of misperceiving society’s criticism as an attack on their dignity and performance. As a result, they may be predisposed to respond by imposing sanctions or legal charges on critics. Those who believe that democracy is a process that is constantly improving, rather than an end in itself, should be concerned when these actions threaten the sustainability of democratic institutions and processes in Indonesia.

A new generation of Indonesian politicians has been shaped by direct elections and has made a name for itself as competent leaders. They have proved to be more responsive to voters’ concerns than political party bosses, who often prefer pliable candidates who can sustain their rent-seeking practices and patronage networks. These promising politicians are also challenging the traditional power balance between the political elite, military establishment, and religious groups that dominated Indonesia’s politics during the Suharto era.

But the promise of a more effective, responsive government has been complicated by the persistent threat to freedom of expression and association. Radical sectarian elements—including militant Islam—as well as political opportunists among the old elite are exploiting social unrest to destabilize democracy and dismantle nascent accountability mechanisms. The country is also struggling to provide basic services to its citizens. Poverty rates have been cut in half over the last 20 years, but 10 percent of the population still lives below the poverty line and a growing wealth gap is fueling political tensions.

While the government’s claim that reverting to indirect regional elections would reduce electoral fraud and increase transparency is credible, its arguments about the need to address social unrest are flawed. The country’s most pressing problems, including the economic slowdown and rising inequality, are more likely to be addressed by tackling the root causes of corruption, such as the endemic prevalence of illicit money-laundering and widespread tax evasion.

Furthermore, the government’s proposal ignores the fact that the switch to direct regional elections was a key factor in the reduction of violent ethnic conflicts. Indirect elections, on the other hand, aggravated tensions by exacerbating distrust of local legislatures and disputed results in regional head races.