Indonesians lose right to directly elect governors, mayors

Indonesian students and activists protest against a new bill on local elections in Jakarta.

Story highlights

  • Indonesia's parliament votes to strip the right to directly elect local leaders
  • Critics say it is a retrograde move; backers say democracy has become too expensive
  • The move was backed by the coalition that backed the losing presidential candidate
Indonesia's parliament voted on Friday to do away with direct local elections in a move that critics say is a huge step backward for the country's fledgling democracy.
Proponents of the law change, to scrap direct elections for mayors and governors, had argued local elections had proven too costly, and were prone to conflict and corruption. The bill was backed by the coalition behind losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto.
But critics disagreed, and questioned the timing of the bill, first proposed in 2012, just two months after the election of Joko Widodo.
Titi Anggraini, director of the Association for Elections and Democracy (Perludem), said that many were upset by the law change.
"I feel so disappointed. It shows how strong the opponents to democracy are. We are facing the biggest enemy of democracy."
The president-elect, universally known as Jokowi, has spoken in favor of direct elections. And his political party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), led the coalition that opposed the bill.
But Widodo has yet to take office and his opponents currently retain the majority in parliament. Six of nine political parties supported the law change and most are part of the coalition that backed Subianto.
"Democracy has become too expensive," Fadli Zon, vice chairman of Subianto's Gerindra party, recently told a forum of journalists.
Zon estimated the government would save about 60 trillion rupiah or $5 billion by eliminating direct regional elections.
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"If the regional election is done by the regional house of representatives, it is estimated that the expenditure needed would only be the cost for tea and coffee," he argued.
Critics say that the move will only benefit entrenched political interests.
"Electing Jokowi was one step forward, what happened in Parliament was five steps backwards for democracy," said political analyst Philips Vermonte, of Indonesia's Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"I think it's unseemly," said Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, a former minister under former president Suharto, and now senior government affairs adviser at Transformasi, a Jakarta-based think tank.
"It won't change the nature of politics, it won't make politics any cleaner. It will only shift the money politics somewhere else, to the oligarchs, and the victims are the Indonesian people," he added.
"Just when they were just enjoying their rights and seeing some good people rise, based on a constituency-based politics, they see the game being taken away from them."
Joko Widodo's rise
Widodo swept into power through the popular vote. He was first elected as mayor of Solo in Central Java in 2005 and then as governor of the nation's capital Jakarta in 2012.
"Direct elections are important because it is the fruit of the 32 years of Indonesia's struggle for democracy," student leader Mohamad Ivan Riansa told a small protest in front of the parliament building Wednesday.
Under former dictator Suharto's 32-year rule, local leaders were chosen by political parties that won seats in local assemblies.
After the fall of his regime in 1998, Indonesia launched a rapid process of political and electoral reform, involving a decentralization of power from the national government.
In 2004, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono became the first directly-elected president of Indonesia. A year later, voters were given the right to choose their own local leaders for the very first time.
The massive democratic undertaking required elections to be staggered over five years throughout the country's 34 provinces and 511 districts or municipalities.
Direct elections favored
A recent opinion survey by the Indonesian Survey Circle showed that 81% of Indonesians prefer direct local elections.
But choosing local leaders was a relatively new and confusing experience for some Indonesians, taxi driver Nana Suryana told CNN.
"It's better for the local assembly to choose the candidates because they know better than we do. People might choose the wrong one," he said.
While voter turnout had been declining since 2009, a new wave of politicians, including Widodo, energized a largely apathetic electorate this year, particularly young voters.
"Most of us abstained from voting before the presidential 2014 elections," musician Viddy Supit told CNN. "We're now aware that we have to use our voices to develop our nation. That's why we're here to support direct regional elections."