The Indonesian democratic process has been characterized by an extended and painful period of reform, known as reformasi. In this era, the country painstakingly rebuilt its institutions of government and democracy while combating entrenched corruption and rooting out the military’s long-held control of key sectors of society. While there remain challenges to democracy in the nation, including a slow pace of structural and cultural reform and the prevalence of elite-driven politics, there are also signs that the Indonesian regime is evolving towards a new political era, one characterized by competitive elections based on policy outcomes rather than on a cherished ideology or vision for the future.
The instrumental conception of democracy
Elites in power in Indonesia have embraced an instrumental conception of democracy that is not only central to their political philosophy but is increasingly a major force shaping how democracy works in the country. President Jokowi and his main challenger in the 2021 presidential election, former general Prabowo Subianto, have both emphasized that voters should judge politicians and political systems on their ability to improve people’s lives. This utilitarian logic of governance makes a strong appeal to elites, who find it difficult to build committed bases of support among the population and must therefore compete with other elites for the public’s attention and votes.
This instrumental approach to democracy has profound implications for electoral rules in the nation. As the president and his allied parties seek to rewrite the country’s electoral laws, they are considering a range of options. Some of these would revert to indirect regional elections. Others, like the proposal to construct an index that judges regions as competent or not to hold direct elections, could lead to institutionalized discrimination against voters in poorer areas.
The case for preserving direct regional elections
In repeated surveys, the vast majority of Indonesians have declared their preference to continue with direct regional elections over a return to indirect regional elections. They are willing to pay a higher cost in terms of election expenses for the benefit of having direct say in who governs them.
A move to revert to indirect elections would represent a significant setback for democracy in Indonesia. It would reduce the quality of governance in the nation, and it would send a dangerous message that Indonesians are not capable of making their own decisions about who should govern them. It would also undermine the democratic gains made by the Indonesian political system during the transition from the New Order to democracy. The Indonesian government should resist pressure to revert to indirect regional elections and instead address the problems that plague the nation’s local governments. Those problems can be addressed through pragmatic political deals and compromise. The current electoral model is not ideal but it is far better than the alternative of going back to a less democratic era in the nation’s history. Sana Jaffrey is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She is the author of “The Limits of Democratic Reinforcement: Indonesia’s Political Dynamics after Reformasi.” She was previously an associate professor at the Australian National University and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Security Studies.