Indonesian Court to Rule on Petition Seeking Change to Electoral System

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Indonesian Court to Rule on Petition Seeking Change to Electoral System

A number of politicians have petitioned the Constitutional Court to change from open-list proportional voting to a closed-list system.

Indonesian Court to Rule on Petition Seeking Change to Electoral System
Credit: Depositphotos

Yesterday, Reuters news agency reported that Indonesia’s Constitutional Court will soon rule on an attempt to change the country’s voting system ahead of next year’s presidential election.

According to the report, the court will on Thursday hand down its ruling on a case filed by several politicians, which seeks an amendment to the 2017 General Election Law in order to restore a closed ballot list system, under which voters choose parties instead of local candidates. Among the petitioners is a politician from President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P).

In a closed ballot list system, voters cast a sole ballot for the party of their choice, which in turn decides the winning candidates based on the proportion of the votes that it wins. The closed ballot list system was abandoned in 2008 and replaced with the current open-list proportional voting system, under which voters can cast their ballot for either a political party or a candidate from the parties’ lists.

The petition has once again revived concerns about a possible delay to the February 14 election, the timely convening of which has already been threatened by a controversial lower court ruling and a proposed delay from some members of Jokowi’s coalition. Reuters quoted one legal expert as saying that if the court ruled in favor of the petitioners, there would be a “high” chance of a delay to next year’s polls, given the time needed to implement the changes.

For this reason and others, there has been resistance to the push to replace the current open-list proportional system from across the political spectrum. Indeed, in January, eight of the nine parties in Jokowi’s big tent governing coalition held a press conference to express their opposition, with Airlangga Hartarto, the chair of the Golkar party, telling reporters that a return to a closed-list system would be “a setback for our democracy.”

Only the PDI-P supports a reversion to the old system, on the grounds that the current open-list system encourages vote-buying and the elevation of individuals over parties.

This is not an entirely fanciful concern. In a 2018 article for East Asia Forum, Burhanuddin Muhtadi, a senior lecturer at Jakarta’s Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University, argued that the advent of the open-list system, which was first employed in the presidential election of 2009, is partly to blame for a spike in vote-buying. He put this down to the fact that in an open-list system, candidates have a strong incentive to compete with other candidates for voters’ allegiances – even with candidates from their own party running in the same constituency.

Under the old system, he argued, “candidates have little incentive to engage in vote buying approaches because the competition primarily takes place between parties and candidates are more likely to rely on party reputation.” Burhanuddin noted that vote-buying was “almost unheard-of” in the 1999 election, the first to be held after the fall of Suharto.

According to Burhanuddin’s research, somewhere between 25 and 33 percent of Indonesian voters say they have been offered cash in exchange for their vote, while 10 percent reported that the money influenced their choice of candidate.

Whatever the relative merits of these two systems, this is not a change that should be undertaken lightly. Indeed, it is not a decision that should ideally be made by the legislature rather than the courts, and even then, only after being studied in detail. As one observer sensibly told the Jakarta Post, any changes to Indonesia’s electoral system should not be made until the 2029 election, lest the change disrupts preparations for next year’s poll.

As it stands, the constant uncertainty about whether and when the next Indonesian election will be held, even if these concerns ultimately turn out to be unfounded, are unwelcome distractions for a nation that has still to fully shed the authoritarian legacies of the past.