What Indonesia’s Regional Election Bill Means for ASEAN

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What Indonesia’s Regional Election Bill Means for ASEAN

One of the last regional bulwarks of democracy is showing signs of slipping.

On the morning of September 26, Indonesians woke up to the shocking news that their right to choose their mayors, regents and governors via direct elections had in effect been taken.

In a significant setback for the country’s ongoing democratization, the ironically named People’s Representative Council (DPR) decided to make local leaders appointed by, and therefore accountable to, regional legislative councils instead.

While the immediate impact of the Regional Election Bill’s passage will be felt hardest by the Indonesian people, the DPR’s decision undoubtedly has far wider implications for the ASEAN region. Since the country’s Reformasi of 1998 – and especially during the Yudhoyono years – Indonesia has prominently positioned itself as a democratic role model to the world and has consistently pushed its democratic agenda within ASEAN. Jakarta’s championing of the Bali Concord II, its support for Myanmar’s democratization, and its annual hosting of the Bali Democracy Forum are examples.

Significantly, Indonesia’s political experiment with decentralization and directly elected local leaders has drawn much interest and admiration from fellow ASEAN member states. For example, Professor Peter Warr recently wrote an article in the East Asia Forum in which Indonesia was specifically highlighted as a case study that was “the success story of Southeast Asia.” Meanwhile, Stanley Weiss argued in The Huffington Post that Indonesia’s “experience setting up a decentralized state contains valuable lessons for Myanmar.”

Although the DPR’s decision does not remove the decentralization system, it weakens it. Future leaders may be less responsible to their constituents, and less responsive to their concerns in decentralized regions. It was through this directly elected system that popular reformists emerged in the nation’s consciousness. These include Bandung Mayor Ridwan Kamil, Surabaya Mayor Tri Rismaharaini, and most notably Joko Widodo, who rose from mayor of Solo to become governor of Jakarta, and now the president of Indonesia.

It is this new breed of local politicians, marked by their achievements in office and familiarity with the people, that have inspired others in the ASEAN region, frustrated with the status-quo and the continued rule of ineffective, corrupt, and distant political elites. This sentiment is reflected in articles such as the Free Malaysia Today’sWanted Badly: A Malaysian Jokowi” and Myanmar’s Irrawaddy piece, “For Burmese, Little Hope for a Jokowi of Their Own.” Now, with the scrapping of direct elections for local leaders, pro-democracy activists in the ASEAN region may have to look outside of Indonesia for inspiration, support and encouragement.

Worryingly, the DPR’s decision comes at a time in which the ASEAN region is witnessing what some analysts call a democratic reversal. Most illustrative is the military coup in Thailand. In addition, Associate Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak in the Bangkok Post notes, “Cambodia, Malaysia and Myanmar have exhibited signs of regression,” while Zachary Keck in The Diplomat adds that more authoritarian ASEAN states such as Brunei, Lao and Vietnam “have halted all reforms and have in some instances also begun rolling back previous reforms.” Arguably, the DPR’s decision completes this democratic reversal in the ASEAN region, undermining any future efforts by Indonesia to promote its democratic agenda among its neighbors, and leaving Southeast Asia with few (if any) democratic bulwarks.

Reacting to the DPR’s decision to pass the regional election bill, Indonesians were quick to turn to social media to voice their anger at the country’s democratic setback. “#RIPDemocracy” became a trending topic on Twitter, with many mourning a sad day for Indonesia. However, it is clear that September 26 was not only an ominous day for Indonesia, but also for the ASEAN region as a whole.

A. Ibrahim Almuttaqi is the ASEAN Studies Program Coordinator at The Habibie Center in Jakarta. The author can be reached at [email protected]