Indonesia’s Wedding-party Democracy Is a Marriage on the Rocks

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ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Indonesia’s Wedding-party Democracy Is a Marriage on the Rocks

Elections remain a cause for celebration in Indonesia, but without firming up the processes around it, the party might end up being just a democratic facade.

Indonesia’s Wedding-party Democracy Is a Marriage on the Rocks
Credit: NHD-INFO, Flickr

Indonesians hold on to the belief that elections are a pesta demokrasi – a celebration of democracy – which dates back to the military regime, before the 1998 political reform. 

Yes, a celebration is exciting, but that’s where the energy ends. You may be invited to a wedding party, but it’s their marriage, not yours. There will be food, drinks, and laughter, but still, it’s not your marriage.

Many Indonesians view general elections as happy occasions, primarily because of the concept of pesta demokrasi. They will participate in celebrations as voters, but the outcomes are not theirs. For most of them, the general elections have no long-term, fundamental significance. Unlike the parties competing, they do not need to maintain popular control when the celebration is over.

In this context, money politics in Indonesian elections makes perfect sense: cash belongs to the festivities. Many Indonesians take advantage of elections to make short-term gains rather than investing in longer-term trust and hope for better times ahead. Some politicians and voters have a running joke about how Indonesian elections work like prepaid SIM cards – you have to pay up front.

The situation is exacerbated by long history and persistent evidence that Indonesian electoral management bodies are not always impartial. Recently, it seems these partisanship issues are worsening. In the second half of 2023, some in civil society criticized the election commission (KPU) on two fronts: women’s representation and the candidacies of individuals convicted of corruption.

An election commission regulation demonstrates the institution’s lack of commitment to upholding the 30 percent female representation quota in parliament, while another regulation permits people convicted of corruption to run for legislative office within five years of their release from prison.

In the opinion of some academics, journalists, and civil society activists, the two regulations are evidence that the electoral commission aligns more closely with the interests of political parties and candidates than it does with voters. To overturn the regulations, a coalition of academics and activists requested a judicial review at Indonesia’s Supreme Court and filed complaints with electoral bodies. It didn’t work.

Instead, Indonesia’s election commission continues making decisions that tend to benefit political parties and therefore trigger some criticism. In December 2023, civil society groups criticized the format of Indonesia’s 2024 presidential candidate debate, which is set to forego a vice-presidential candidate debate, despite doing so in the past. In 2024, all debate sessions will have both pairs of candidates present.

Critics accuse the electoral commission of making the change specifically to benefit vice-presidential candidate Gibran Rakabuming Raka, a junior politician and the son of President Joko Widodo.

The question is why such a thing can occur. The management structure of Indonesia’s state auxiliary agencies, which puts them closer to the state and away from civil society, may offer an explanation. 

In Indonesia, civil society groups don’t carry influence over state auxiliary agencies as they might elsewhere. Instead, agency leaders view civil society as a source of recruits and talents – not a compass for moral guidance.

Political power plays an extremely significant role in recruitment, surpassing the influence of any component of civil society. There is fierce political competition during the selection process for election management body commissioners. Once elected, leaders receive the same financial support, facilities and services as state officials, even surpassing Echelon 1 of government. It makes it exceedingly hard to ensure people in this position will serve as a conduit for the  concerns of civil society within the state.

Being a state official often gives the impression of comfort. Even the subtleties of militarism have grown more prevalent in electoral institutions, particularly the electoral commission: its secretary-general is well known for his obsession with all things military.

In Indonesia, election management bodies are not motivated to support the demands of civil society. Their ability to protect the interests of electoral and state actors and persuade them to heed pressure from this domain is what matters most in determining how well they perform politically.

Without improvement, especially of recruitment and management in Indonesia’s state and electoral bodies, public trust in democracy may be at risk. Meaningful reform could go a long way, but whether people holding political power are willing to do so is an entirely different question.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.