Sore Losers Spite Indonesia’s Democracy – Elizabeth Pisani – The New York Times

A version of this op-ed appears in print on October 8, 2014, in the Opinion pages of the NYTimes online and in The International New York Times. We reproduce it here for archival purposes.

JAKARTA, Indonesia —
As Indonesia’s departing president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, spoke last month in the United States about the importance of public participation in politics, the party he leads was working to deprive Indonesians of their right to vote directly for their district leaders or mayors. The move was an attempt by Jakarta’s old guard, whose candidate lost the last national elections in July, to reassert itself in the face of a new breed of politician: competent local administrators who can appeal directly to voters rather than bend to the whims and corrupt interests of their political parties.

That generational clash — between candidates whose politics were shaped during the 32 years Suharto held power and those who have come of age professionally since his authoritarian rule ended in 1998 — was the central narrative of the presidential election. In the old guard’s corner was Prabowo Subianto, a former general and son-in-law of Suharto who promised strong-arm government and glory for Indonesia. In the reformist corner was Joko Widodo, a poor-boy-made-good figure and former mayor of Jakarta, who spoke quietly of serving the people.

Mr. Joko’s “political outsider” narrative won narrowly, and Mr. Prabowo did not give up easily; he unsuccessfully challenged the result in court, and has never admitted defeat or congratulated his opponent, who takes office Oct. 20.

Still smarting from his loss to a relative nobody, Mr. Prabowo and his supporters whipped the departing Parliament into passing a bill that gave control over the most important parliamentary offices to the largest coalition in the chamber (Mr. Prabowo’s) rather than the largest party (Mr. Joko’s). Then they set about dismantling direct elections of district heads or mayors, as well as those of provincial governors.

The new law charges district and provincial parliaments with choosing these leaders. This works well for Mr. Prabowo’s coalition, which controls a majority of seats in 28 of the 30 provincial governments that are to use the new system. But it works extremely badly for Indonesian democracy.

The old guard’s argument for abandoning direct local elections is that they are expensive and encourage corruption, since candidates need to repay their supporters for the money they have spent campaigning. But Mr. Prabowo and his partners seem to have short memories. Indonesia switched to direct elections only in 2005, from a system in which the local parliaments chose district heads; the argument for changing then was that the indirect electoral system was itself corrupt.

While it is true that direct elections did not remove money from the nomination and voting process, they did change the way candidates spent that money. Instead of concentrating patronage on the party hacks who decided their fate in the old days, district heads (and candidates) could trickle more of the wealth down to their new bosses, the voters. Sometimes the flow has taken the form of cash payments in the days before an election, or jobs for key supporters after a victory. But increasingly, winning candidates also have rewarded voters with public health insurance plans, investment in infrastructure, scholarship programs and other things that provide real social benefits.

And Indonesian voters proved themselves sophisticated enough about corruption to make fine distinctions. They tolerate patronage that delivers jobs and contracts to an officeholder’s supporters, as long as the jobs and contracts then deliver schools and roads to the people. But they do not tolerate out-and-out theft; incumbents who don’t spread benefits widely are regularly tossed out of office.

A majority of district heads still have links with the Suharto-era political elites. The crucial contribution of direct elections has been to serve up a handful of leaders who have used the public’s confidence in them to experiment with bold new programs and approaches to government. When this happens, the news media flashes the good examples across the archipelago, stimulating hope among Indonesians that change is possible. That hope was most eloquently expressed in the election of Mr. Joko, who first came to national attention as the directly elected mayor of a small city, Solo.

By handing the choice of district head back to political parties, Mr. Prabowo’s coalition, which includes Mr. Yudhoyono’s party, has stomped on the chances of such candidates’ emerging in the future. Farmers, fishermen and millions of other working Indonesians are outraged. A poll published Oct. 1 in the newspaper Kompas reported that 82 percent of respondents in 12 cities said they thought members of Parliament lacked discipline, and 86 percent thought they were corrupt.

There is an irony here. Although Indonesians are losing democratic rights, it is happening through entirely democratic procedures. Mr. Yudhuyono, apparently surprised by public anger at his party’s failure to protect direct elections, has issued a face-saving “government regulation in lieu of law” that would replace the new law. But that must be discussed by the incoming Parliament — controlled by Mr. Prabowo’s coalition — if it is to come into force.

Americans, who are no strangers to the “popular president undermined by a sulking opposition resentful of an outsider’s victory” narrative, may feel that Mr. Joko is doomed. But he is a politician, not a saint, and Indonesian politicians have a talent for unlikely compromise.

The president-elect, who has yet to assign posts in his cabinet, knows there are some reformists within several of the five parties that currently oppose him. If voters stage mass protests before Parliament discusses Mr. Yudhuyono’s “regulation,” it could help Mr. Joko work with the reformers to weaken the party bosses’ hold. He might even tempt one or two of those parties over to his side, undermining Mr. Prabowo’s ability to sabotage the reforms that the electorate expects of the incoming president.

Reverting to direct elections and keeping the door to reform open would be the ultimate revenge for Indonesian democracy.

Elizabeth Pisani is the author of “Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation.”

A version of this op-ed appears in print on October 8, 2014, in The International New York Times.