An Elegy to Indonesian Democracy
Image Credit: REUTERS/Darren Whiteside

An Elegy to Indonesian Democracy


Earlier this month, Indonesia was what The New York Times lauded as Southeast Asia’s “role model for democracy.” By Friday night, one couldn’t be so sure.

After a fiercely lengthy debate, the Indonesian House of Representatives voted Friday 226 to 135 in favor of eliminating direct popular elections for local and regional leaders, placing the task instead in the hands of each region’s legislative councils. RIP Indonesian democracy, many Indonesians posted and tweeted online.

Indonesia is the third-largest democracy in the world, behind India and the U.S. Or at least it was. Calling the new law, dubbed “UU Pilkada,” a step back for Indonesia may be an understatement, for Indonesia’s path to democracy had not been a mere step – it was an arduous path marked by violence and bloody repression.

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The country survived decades under the rule of dictator Soeharto before achieving democracy through the protests of 1998. Today, democracy in Indonesia may seem a given. But it certainly did not come without a price.

I still remember the riotous 1998 protests: violent clashes on the streets of Jakarta, businesses and homes on fire. The financial crisis that was raging through Asia at the time certainly made life difficult and uncertain. But that was nothing compared to Soeharto’s dictatorship.

Soeharto’s era was a time when general elections meant that an armed militia intimidated you on your way to the voting booth; that you voted “yellow” – the color of Soeharto’s party – or else; that you feared the “consequences” for any suspected subversion, as arbitrarily decided by the politico-military machine. It was during that time that the “White Group,” a political abstention movement, emerged: an active protest against the corrupt election system by withholding one’s vote. Suffrage, back then, was a matter of life and death.

Many of these pro-democracy activists remain “missing” – their family and friends hold regular vigils to demand that the government take action, to no avail.

The 1998 protests, led by students and rights activists, succeeded in ushering in a semblance of democracy, albeit chaotically. In the first few years following Soeharto’s ouster, the archipelago saw a rocky transition, cycling through three presidents in five years. From the three main political parties under Soeharto – Golkar, PDI, and PPP – Indonesia suddenly had dozens, with their ever-mutating coalitions and fickle personalities. Democracy is exciting, but it can be overwhelming.

Yet during the most recent presidential elections, Indonesia appeared ready for the challenge. The 2014 presidential elections is only the third direct presidential election the nation has ever held. Pitting current Jakarta governor Joko Widodo against former military general Prabowo Subianto, many saw Joko’s ultimate victory as the triumph of new politics over the old military establishment.

More than the result, however, the process was key. The entire nation of almost a quarter billion people seemed to revel in the pesta demokrasi (democracy party) and, unlike in Soeharto’s era, everyone’s invited. Political discussions enlivened family dinners, corner stores and cafes. Twitter, Facebook and Path were abuzz. Folks from all walks of life – the cynical elderly, the disgruntled middle-aged, the enthusiastic youth – participated. No matter which side of the aisle you were on, the euphoria was intoxicating.

On Friday night, the nation mourned.

Friday’s election bill was introduced as an effort to combat corruption in the electoral process, its supporters claim. Proponents of the bill cite that since 2004, about 300 local leaders elected through direct elections have been proven to be corrupt or run into problems with the law. Rather than combating the corruption itself, the bill’s proponents claim the election method is the problem. In their distrust in people’s capacity to elect good leaders, they favor instead the dubious assumption that legislative councils would do better at choosing clean leaders.

But, as some critics have pointed out, the bill also appeared to be an attempt by losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto’s Gerindra Party to prevent another Joko Widodo, whose rise to the presidency began with him being popularly elected as the mayor of Solo.

The bill had been – and continues to be – fiercely opposed. An online petition that rejects the law has amassed almost 55,000 signatures to date. Laypeople and political figures alike have expressed their visceral rejection. Among the highest profile cases, Jakarta’s Deputy Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama left his Gerindra Party over the party’s support for the law.

Basuki, like many of the law’s opponents, fears more corruption. “Effectively, regional leaders will then provide ‘services’ for council members [to get elected],” he told reporters after announcing his break with Gerindra, nodding to the vote-buying still prevalent in Indonesian legislative councils.

A number of human rights organizations have also condemned the bill, including a coalition formed by the Indonesian Corruption Watch (ICW), Center for the Study of Law and Policy (PSHK), Commission for Missing Peoples and Victims of Violence (KontraS), Consortium for Agrarian Reform (KPA) and Forum for the Environment (Walhi), that released an official objection to the bill on September 10.

In a statement, the coalition claimed, “This will erase the right of each citizen to participate in government.” The coalition further argued that the bill could stunt the growth of civil society in Indonesia.

“Direct elections teach citizens to find out about their future leaders,” its statement continued. With vote-buying or intimidation still prevalent in elections at all levels, Indonesians aren’t quite used to learning about each candidate’s platform and making informed decisions, though that is changing.

Moreover, placing that responsibility in the hands of council members means the chosen leaders are less accountable to the people they govern.

But the members of parliament – themselves ironically elected by their constituents – disagreed. Gerindra’s “Red White” Coalition, who controls the House, pushed the bill through, leaving only PDI-P – president-elect Joko Widodo’s party – Hanura and PKB voting against the bill. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Partai Demokrat walked out of the proceedings after seeing their amendments to direct elections looking unlikely to pass.

That said, Indonesians don’t seem ready just yet to relinquish their hard-won political voice without a fight. Another online petition is circulating, demanding that the Constitutional Court conduct a judicial review of the law in the hopes of annulling it. People are protesting on the streets and online.

“Don’t say ‘RIP to democracy,’” Anggita Paramesti, an activist from Yogyakarta posted to her Facebook page. “We will win our sovereignty back.”

“There’s only one way,” Yanuar Nugroho, adviser for the President’s Delivery Unit for Development Monitoring and Oversight, tweeted: “Challenge the law at the Constitutional Court.”

“Another? Note the 226 people who were against direct regional elections. Make sure they are never elected again,” he tweeted.

It remains unclear whether the Constitutional Court will consider the case. But perhaps there’s cause for optimism. Because although the law is regressive, Indonesia now has not regressed – nor will it – to Soeharto’s era. Civil society has been growing and people, especially the youth, have embraced their freedoms of expression and political participation. Just as a vigilant group formed an online “election watch” to ensure a clean presidential election last July, Indonesians are again mobilizing.

In the spirit of 1998, this elegy marks not the end of Indonesian democracy, but the resounding hope that it will be reborn, even stronger than before.

Aria Danaparamita is a journalist and former Freeman Asian Scholar at Wesleyan University.

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