A new volunteer movement is shining a light on Indonesia’s parliament and its representatives
It is no secret that a deep sense of pessimism surrounds Indonesia’s national parliament. Continuing corruption scandals, seemingly ineffective leaders and the poor reputation of political parties have contributed to the DPR (People’s Representative Council) regularly being rated among the least trusted institutions within Indonesia’s political system. This pessimism is, of course, not unique to Indonesia, but it stands in direct contrast to much of the promise that was generated during the early reformasi era.
In recent years in Indonesia, an interesting trend has started to emerge to counter this malaise of parties and corruption within the DPR. An increasing number of popular representatives have sought to bypass the traditional party system, in order to focus on a more direct relationship with citizens. Current president, Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, is a well-known example, but other local and regional leaders like Ridwan Kamil in Bandung and Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or Ahok, in Jakarta, are also part of this trend. For their critics, these leaders are little more than populists or ‘media darlings’. On the other hand, those who are more optimistic see these local and regional executive leaders as a desperately needed alternative.
Indonesia’s political representatives
By taking advantage of direct election procedures, candidates have managed to partly sidestep political parties (even when they have formal ties to the parties) and have relied on their own identities to make innovative representative claims. Importantly, executive office at lower political levels provides ample opportunity to prove oneself. Local executive leaders can apply the funds available to them to establish programs that are easily noticeable and attributed to their own leadership – the healthcare programs noted by Aspinall and Warburton is a good example of this.
On the other hand, parliamentarians face challenges connecting directly with their constituents. A representative sitting in a national, regional or local assembly has few opportunities to make decisions that can be attributed directly to them. Bills passed through parliaments rely on coalitions and groups of representatives, rather than individual politicians. Parliamentarians can speak about issues in the media, but this rarely provides the type of traction that local and regional executive leaders can get. Indeed, as in many democracies, a large percentage of citizens are unlikely to know exactly who their parliamentary representatives are and what they are doing.
It is no coincidence then that in recent times, of the names regularly mentioned as presidential candidates in Indonesia, very few have had a parliamentary career. Many presidential and vice presidential candidates benefit from their previous work in executive posts – both elected and unelected. This is true of the last two presidents (Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was a former military figure and minister, Jokowi was a local and regional executive), but it is also true of other names mentioned as potential candidates. For example, Dahlan Ishkan, former head of the national electricity agency and a minister, another former minister, Sri Mulyani, and Mahfud MD as a former constitutional court judge.
The organisation, WikiDPR, was born in 2014 with the aim to better connect the public with parliamentarians in the DPR. Its emergence can be seen as part of a broader trend prior to the 2014 election, in which young Indonesians in particular, became active in formal politics – be it as volunteers on Jokowi’s presidential campaign or through joining electoral advocacy groups such as Ayo Vote. After the election whilst the activities of many of these groups fell away, WikiDPR’s mandate clearly extended beyond the campaign period and voting day, monitoring the activities of Indonesia’s new elected parliaments and parliamentarians. As co-founder of Ayo Vote, Pangeran Siahaan, told a forum at the University of Indonesia in October 2014, WikiDPR’s work is important precisely because ‘the process of democracy does not finish at the time of the election’.
Leaders of WikiDPR interviewed for this article explained that the concept first came to them when they realised how little information about parliamentary candidates was available to the public. As one organiser described it, ‘Registration for candidates was carried out by hand and then uploaded using a scanner. And that information was not sufficient to be described as complete or informative. So, we were determined to provide a platform which begins from the start of the DPR period through to the end of their time in office. And at the end of that period (2019), all WikiDPR volunteers can provide complete information’.
WikiDPR operates a website (wikidpr.org) which provides information about DPR members, enabling the user to sort by region or parliamentary commission. They also provide a news source for articles relevant to the DPR and its work. However, the most interesting and dynamic element of WikiDPR’s activity is its social media profile. WikiDPR’s Twitter account gives updates and live coverage of parliamentary sessions and DPR member activity, and the level of detail provided goes far beyond that available in the mainstream media or even directly from the parliament itself.
Like other movements emerging around the time of the 2014 national elections, volunteerism is a central aspect of WikiDPR’s approach to political engagement. One student volunteer, Emilia Savira, described her reasons for joining WikiDPR: ‘It comes from a very personal reason. I feel like I have never really helped people with my skill or ability...And I saw that WikiDPR can accommodate that, I can... use the knowledge that I have and bring my experience to discussion, everything in a spirit of helping people to better grasp political problems and the current issues in our country, or at least knowing what ideas are being brought by their representatives to Senayan [the national parliament]’.
Volunteers receive training and are especially active in reporting live from parliamentary sessions. In this way, they are not only important sources of information, but themselves develop a better understanding of how the parliament operates. Emilia describes her work as ‘mostly attending sessions and meetings and reporting on them through live tweeting. …the spirit of WikiDPR is how we can produce archives that are organised, easy to access, and complete.’ This close coverage has extended the ambit of the volunteers’ work and therefore also that of WikiDPR. Emilia explains, ‘For this reason, over time I’ve begun to notice the DPR members. And lately I’ve also begun to carry out more research and media tracking for specific issues which involve opinions or decisions from the DPR’.
As Indah Putri, another of WikiDPR’s organisers, explains, many WikiDPR members were not engaged in formal politics before the 2014 election. ‘Most of us previously chose to be apathetic towards politics – and simply chose to not care. Yet, we were also aware that if all we did was complain and not do anything to create a better Indonesia… that is just stagnation. That is the basis of our enthusiasm for WikiDPR’. Emilia echoes this view, ‘Involvement is the key. Beginning with using our right to vote, caring about the political process, and most importantly, saying something if we think there is something which is not right. [An] active public will be able to change [the] government’s point of view, so, why don’t we start to care?’
But is this enthusiasm being rewarded? Despite its only recent development, WikiDPR has established a decent following online (at the time of writing it had just over 15,000 Twitter followers) and has drawn attention from a range of public figures. This was particularly evident during a recent campaign to recruit more volunteers when details of the campaign were retweeted by a range of well-known politicians and celebrities. The website, while easy to navigate, at present only provides basic information on most DPR members (though this will no doubt change as the organisation continues its work). On the other hand, the Twitter account is active, providing details of parliamentary sessions, which might otherwise be difficult to access. It is unclear to what extent this level of detail is accessible for everyday citizens and to what extent it can be used to make judgements about individual politicians. However, the fact that it is so readily available is an important step.
The organisers of WikiDPR themselves are aware of the challenges they face in trying to inspire engagement with the DPR, but also highlight their joy in encountering members of the public who are ‘enthusiastic and optimistic’. As one of the organisers of WikiDPR explains, the public support and ‘optimism have become a ‘fuel’ for constructive change. In the space of three months, we have received many followers on Twitter and many volunteers enjoy meeting together each Saturday afternoon to join our training regarding the DPR’.
Emilia is also optimistic about the role that young people might play in Indonesia’s future more generally. She said, ‘I’m sure it will become more dynamic. The participation of young people will definitely increase. I’m curious actually what the role of the netizen will look like in the future in influencing government policy, and I’m also curious whether party elites will continue to make use of several conservative practices or perhaps there will be a positive change’.
Future prospects for WikiDPR
WikiDPR has set some ambitious goals, including inspiring young people to become ‘politically literate’ and ‘closing the gap between the community and their representatives’. The extent to which they will be successful in these aims will depend on a number of factors. The greater level of transparency and engagement sought by WikiDPR requires both sides of the equation to realise the potential of this approach. It requires a public that is interested in the extra detail provided about the activity of politicians and parliament, as well as elected representatives who see the benefits of altering their own behaviour.
And while engagement is important and critique is also part of the political process, there is always the potential for it to cause tension. At this stage, WikiDPR as an organisation appears to be much more focused on coverage of parliamentary activity, rather than political analysis. As WikiDPR evolves, the balance between maintaining relationships with politicians and critiquing their shortcomings is a challenge that will need to be negotiated.
More broadly, efforts to bridge the gap between citizens and representatives seem reliant on broader political developments in Indonesia. These efforts would require the continued eradication of the culture of corruption, patronage and money politics that have damaged the legitimacy of political parties and the parliament. It arguably also relies on greater professionalism and efficiency within these institutions. Engagement between parliamentarians and the public, of the type envisaged by WikiDPR, would be a very positive development, but many citizens will not be willing to engage with politicians until they are seen to be delivering real impact in their daily lives. Why engage with a DPR member when they appear uncaring, and their ability to influence public policy seems abstract?
Despite these challenges, the emergence of organisations like WikiDPR demonstrates that cynicism toward Indonesian politics is not universal. Everyday Indonesian citizens and in this case, young Indonesians especially, are in many cases willing to sacrifice their time and energy for the hope of a better Indonesia.
Michael Hatherell (email@example.com) is a recent PhD student from Deakin University in Geelong. He teaches in the language, politics and international relations disciplines at Deakin and his research interests include political representation and party politics in Indonesia.