Democracy in Indonesia – Reverting to Indirect Regional Elections

As the world’s largest Muslim democracy, Indonesia has a particular responsibility to set an example for its neighbors. But, despite the country’s impressive economic gains and relative poverty reduction, its democracy is far from perfect.

A new report from the International Electoral Institute finds that while Indonesia has made progress in reducing electoral violence and fraud, it still struggles to address corruption, low turnout, and political polarization. This article takes a closer look at how these challenges might be addressed and asks whether the country is on track to achieve its goal of becoming a fully functional democracy by 2024.

Indirect regional elections dominated the early years of Indonesia’s democratization, during which time old elites in local legislatures rubber-stamped executives appointed by Jakarta. The introduction of direct elections in 2005 mitigated these authoritarian legacies, allowing voters to choose their own regional executives and hold them accountable for policy failures. But, despite these advances, the country remains vulnerable to electoral clientelism and weak political parties.

As elections for president and parliamentary seats approach in 2019, the government and allied parties are seeking to reform the electoral system again. They’re considering several options for doing so, and some of them are radical. The most striking proposal calls for reverting to indirect regional elections. The idea reflects the government and allied parties’ doubts about voters’ ability to make responsible electoral choices. They argue that the current system is too costly and that regional legislators are better positioned to vet candidates for executive positions and discipline poor performers.

The proposal ignores the relative value that voters derive from direct elections, which enable them to directly select their leaders and punish those who fail to deliver. Repeated surveys suggest that voters are willing to pay the higher costs of direct elections in order to enjoy the increased choice and control they offer. It also overlooks the way that direct elections have weakened political parties, which have become more dependent on votes of regional legislators in order to secure operational funding. In the end, voters may find themselves paying for a costly electoral fix that does little to improve democracy in Indonesia.

The reversal of direct regional elections is particularly concerning because it would undermine a key electoral reform that Indonesia negotiated through a process described as “a game of inches.” During the long and painful negotiations at the beginning of the country’s democratic journey, parties carefully considered each change and bartered support for one amendment in exchange for support from other groups. This process was necessary to design a system that would work for the country’s diverse population and political environment. The reversal of this process could set the country back considerably.