ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Indonesia’s Parliament Mulls Controversial Electoral Reforms

Amid Indonesia’s struggle against COVID-19, a number of political parties are attempting to reform the country’s electoral system ahead of the 2024 legislative elections.

By Marcus Tantau for
Indonesia’s Parliament Mulls Controversial Electoral Reforms
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Davidelit

As the Indonesian government struggles to contain the spread of COVID-19, the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat (DPR), the country’s lower house of parliament, has indicated plans to revise the country’s electoral system, a clear sign that Indonesia’s political parties remain very much fixated on the 2024 legislative elections.

On May 6, Commission II of the DPR released a draft law detailing changes to the country’s electoral system that currently falls under Law No. 7/2017. The most significant of these proposed changes would both increase the parliamentary threshold from 4 percent to 7 percent and remove the current proportional open-list voting system in favor of implementing a proportional closed-list system.

At the federal level of Indonesia’s political system, all political parties are subject to a parliamentary threshold: they cannot gain seats in the DPR if they fail to achieve 4 percent of the total national vote at a legislative election. This means that even if a political party receives the most votes in a specified electoral district, yet fails to meet the 4 percent parliamentary threshold nationally, they are automatically excluded from that district’s count.

Indonesia’s parliament first implemented the parliamentary threshold for seats in the DPR ahead of the 2009 legislative election, and it initially was set at 2.5 percent. However, this figure increased to 3.5 percent ahead of the 2014 election, and then again to 4 percent in time for the 2019 election. The political reasoning behind the mechanism’s initial implementation and subsequent revisions has remained the same since 2004. Proponents of the mechanism claim that it enhances the country’s democracy by reducing the number of political parties in the DPR. They contend that reducing the political diversity within the DPR actually improves legislative consensus-building and strengthens the country’s presidential system. Unsurprisingly, larger political parties have been the main supporters behind increasing the parliamentary threshold, with Golkar, Nasdem, and Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa (PKB) all announcing their support for an increase to 7 percent, whereas Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan (PDIP), Gerindra, and Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (PKS) have suggested support for a 5 percent threshold.

While the DPR’s six largest political parties support an increase to the parliamentary threshold in principle, the remaining mid-tier and minor political parties strongly oppose it. These parties argue that increasing the parliamentary threshold will entrench Indonesia’s larger parties and disadvantage minor and new parties by making it harder for them to win seats in the DPR. They also contend that the proposed change will render millions of votes wasted, highlighting the 2019 legislative election as an example, where 13.6 million or 7.24 percent of the total number of votes were excluded from the count.

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Some political commentators have suggested that this move to increase the parliamentary threshold is an attempt by Indonesia’s larger and more established political parties to prevent new grassroots political parties from gaining traction with voters and biting into their share of seats in the DPR. The emergence of the largely youth-led political party Partai Solidaritas Indonesia (PSI) has come to represent such a threat, after its better-than-expected performance at the 2019 legislative election saw it garner 1.89 percent of the national vote. Through its savvy use of social media, PSI was able to galvanize support from mainly young voters with limited backing from wealthy patrons. Although PSI’s 2019 election result fell below the 4 percent parliamentary threshold, its performance has caused concern amongst Indonesia’s established political parties. These parties fear that if left unchanged, the current parliamentary threshold could usher in a new cohort of political parties keen on upsetting the current status quo. By raising the parliamentary threshold further, the larger and more established political parties believe that they may be able to prevent parties like PSI from entering the DPR at the 2024 legislative election.  Such an outcome would help preserve their share of seats in the lower house and prevent dissenting voices from exposing and reforming the legislative body’s alleged corrupt practices.

In addition to raising the parliamentary threshold, the bill also proposes changes to the country’s voting system by discarding the current proportional open-list system in favor of a proportional closed-list system. This will see ballot papers feature party names rather than candidate names and give parties rather than voters the power to decide which candidates are elected to the DPR. What is noteworthy about this proposal is that at the 1999 legislative election, Indonesia had used a proportional closed-list voting system to populate the DPR. However, the use of this voting system meant that DPR members were beholden to their party leaders rather than their electoral districts. Consequently, a semi-open-list was implemented ahead of the 2004 legislative election, before a full open-list system was introduced in time for the 2009 legislative election.

So far, only PDIP and Golkar support this change, while Nasdem, Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa, Partai Demokrat, Partai Keadilan Sejahtera, and Partai Amanat Nasional all support the current proportional open-list system. Currently, only Gerindra has yet to reveal its formal position on the matter. Proponents of the proportional closed-list system argue that it will help rid Indonesia’s political landscape of money politics and improve the quality of politicians in the DPR through the appointment of experienced party cadres rather than individuals lacking political experience. However, opponents of the closed-list system argue that it will only serve to empower political party leaders, create a market for seat-buying within parties, and make it significantly harder for local figures to represent their local electoral districts.

Thus far, Indonesia’s President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has remained silent on the bill.
As with similar issues in the past, Jokowi has refrained from interfering with the DPR’s legislative agenda on the provision that his own political standing and agenda remain unaffected. As such, the fate of this issue will likely remain in the hands of the DPR, which is hoping to legislate this bill by early 2021.

In ascertaining the likelihood of these changes being legislated, it is worth taking into account the various party positions and their respective numbers in the DPR. As current numbers stand, it is unlikely that Nasdem, Golkar, and PKB will secure enough support to increase the parliamentary threshold to 7 percent. However, if they are willing to settle for a 5 percent threshold, they may find allies among PDIP, Gerindra, and PKS who have already indicated their support for a 1 percent increase. With Indonesia’s six largest political parties indicating support for an increase to the parliamentary threshold and taking into account that they represent more than half the seats in the DPR, it is likely that a parliamentary threshold of at least 5 percent will be included in the bill. On the proposal of adopting a proportional closed-list voting system, the numbers in the DPR both for and against this change remain unclear. Consequently, this could put Gerindra in a kingmaker position as its undecided stance on this specific detail of the bill may decide whether it is kept in the final draft or not.

While the Indonesian public’s attention remains rightly fixated on the health and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the prospective long-term impact of this bill on Indonesia’s democracy has the potential to reverberate long after the current pandemic has passed. As such, it is critical that Indonesian voters understand the contents of this bill and recognize that it may seriously alter their political system in a way that could ultimately serve to empower the political establishment and obstruct broader political participation.

Marcus Tantau is an incoming senior analyst for risk consultancy firm S-RM.