Reason to party: supporters of President SBY and his Democrat Party campaigning in Yogyakarta
Indonesia’s parliamentary elections, which were held across the archipelago on 9 April 2009, were an important litmus test for the maturity of its post-1998 democracy. To begin with, the quality of Indonesia’s electoral management had been questioned before the polls, with many observers predicting that the ballot’s legitimacy could be at risk. Whereas both the 1999 and 2004 elections had been widely praised as being free, fair and competitive, there were serious doubts about how professionally managed the 2009 polls would be. Second, Indonesians were curious as to whether Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party would become the first government party since Suharto’s fall to win a national election. In the two previous ballots, neither Habibie’s Golkar nor Megawati Sukarnoputri’s PDI-P (Indonesian Democracy Party of Struggle) had managed to turn incumbency into electoral victory.
Finally, commentators also speculated about the possible impact of important electoral reforms – most notably, the introduction of a parliamentary threshold and of a fully open party list – on the stability of Indonesia’s party system. This article discusses the outcome of the elections against the backdrop of the three pre-election concerns, concluding that while a slight decline in the quality of democratic procedures did take place, other trends indicate a further consolidation of Indonesia’s 11 year old democracy.
The quality of elections: satisfactory but declining
As the third election after the end of authoritarianism in 1998, the 2009 ballot has been of particular importance to Indonesia’s democratisation. While the 1999 and 2004 polls were supported by high levels of post-autocratic enthusiasm and many millions of dollars of foreign aid, the 2009 election occurred in a much less dramatic political environment. Accordingly, the elections were a test case for Indonesia’s ability to hold high-quality elections as a routine procedure rather than as the climax of historic political change.
The elections were a test case for Indonesia’s ability to hold high-quality elections as a routine procedure rather than as the climax of historic political change
The preparations for the elections didn’t augur well in this regard. First of all, the newly appointed KPU (General Election Commission) consisted of largely unknown bureaucrats who had some experience in organising district-level elections, but lacked the expertise to run one of the largest electoral operations in the world. Significantly, the KPU recruitment committee had disqualified several respected academics and NGO activists in the first round of the selection process, basing its decision on an arguably irrelevant psychological test rather than on screening the candidates’ knowledge of electoral issues. As a result, the KPU’s inauguration and electoral planning were accompanied by much public cynicism, with many analysts forecasting the failure of the elections before the Commission had even begun its work.
The KPU was only partially to blame for the weaknesses in electoral preparations, however. Arguably, the government and the legislature were at least equally responsible for the many shortcomings. Most importantly, they had contributed to the organisational chaos by driving an initiative to reduce the costs of general elections. In 2004, the total budget for the elections had been 56 trillion rupiah (US$5.3 billion), which was drawn from both national and local budgets. By contrast, the new electoral laws stipulated that the 2009 elections had to be funded exclusively by the national budget. Consequently, the KPU submitted a budget request for 48 trillion rupiah (US$4.6 billion), triggering widespread public anger over this ‘outrageous’ demand. Led by Vice-President Jusuf Kalla, who had always argued that elections in Indonesia are too costly, the political elite began to cut the budget for the 2009 ballot.
Final numbers have not been released yet, but the KPU eventually planned its operations based on a budget of 14 trillion rupiah (US$1.3 billion), while asking regional administrations to contribute additional funds. Therefore, many crucial budget items were reduced – the allocation for computer-based tabulation of votes, for example, was only a third of what had been provided for in the 2004 budget. Not surprisingly, the tabulation proceeded much more slowly than five years earlier.
The combination of inexperienced KPU members and reduced electoral budgets was most manifest in the problems surrounding the voter registration process. According to the law, the KPU had to verify the government’s civil registry lists by going door to door in order to rectify mistakes in the official documents. However, only a very small budget was granted for this activity, forcing the KPU to largely rely on the government data provided to it without verifying it independently. For that reason, the voter lists issued by the KPU were ridiculously outdated. Many voters had moved residence since the last election in 2004, but their names were still included in the voter lists compiled at their previous locations. When these voters subsequently tried to vote in their new neighbourhoods, they found that they were ineligible.
Voter turn-out dropped from 84 per cent in 2004 to 71 per cent in 2009
Partly because of these problems, voter turnout dropped from 84 per cent in 2004 to 71 per cent in 2009. This decline, in turn, was exploited by parties with poor results to dispute the legitimacy of the elections. Arguing that tens of millions of voters had been deliberately kept away from the ballot booths, they threatened to boycott the presidential elections in July 2009 if their demands for revotes were not heeded. Unable to collect credible evidence for their claims, however, most parties quickly dropped their protests.
The speed with which challenges to the elections’ legality were abandoned indicates that even most of the losing parties and candidates accepted the general fairness of the ballot. To be sure, they did not have much choice. Before the elections, most polling organisations had predicted a result similar to that finally announced by the KPU. In addition, four ‘quick counts’ published by Indonesia’s most respected pollsters on election night differed only slightly from the official end result. Given these numbers, dissatisfied party leaders found it difficult to argue that the elections did not reflect the overall will of the electorate.
Hence, the Constitutional Court received far fewer official complaints than initially feared. The Court had prepared itself for a flood of lawsuits, calculating that – like in 2004 – it would be handed an average of 20 challenges by each participating party. This would have resulted in 880 cases; however, the number of cases it eventually received was ‘only’ 595, with an additional 28 complaints filed by candidates for the DPD (Regional Representatives Council).
There is no doubt that the overall quality of the ballot was lower than in 1999 and 2004. In almost all areas of electoral management, the level of professionalism, transparency and consistency declined
While the elections did not end in the organisational and political disaster that many had envisaged, there is no doubt that the overall quality of the ballot was lower than in 1999 and 2004. In almost all areas of electoral management, the level of professionalism, transparency and consistency declined. Given that the 2009 polls were expected to signal the routinisation of electoral democracy in Indonesia, this should be a source of concern. Apparently, both Indonesian policymakers and international aid agencies have begun to take the continuation of Indonesia’s democratic consolidation for granted, leading them to reduce their political and financial support for the elections.
Foreign donors, for example, have gradually cut their electoral assistance budgets for Indonesia from US$100 million in 1999 and US$85.4 million in 2004 to only US$15 million in 2009. Similarly, Indonesian politicians have constantly complained that the money used to fund elections could be better spent on health, education or infrastructure programs. These are early warning signs that awareness of the importance of credible elections in Indonesia is waning, both domestically and abroad. Clearly, a reinvigorated commitment to high-quality ballots – and the budgets necessary to conduct them – is necessary to avoid further slides in Indonesia’s electoral professionalism.
Yudhoyono’s victory and democratic consolidation
Women folding up ballot papers for the local and national parliamentary elections in Yogyakarta. For each paper,
Despite the decline in the technical quality of the elections, the results have in fact helped to consolidate Indonesia’s democratic polity. For the first time, an incumbent government party was able to come first in a post-Suharto legislative election, indicating significantly increased levels of public satisfaction with the effectiveness of governance. Whatever one thinks of President Yudhoyono and his party, after two defeats for incumbents in 1999 and 2004, a third successive loss would have seriously questioned the ability of Indonesia’s governing elite to meet the expectations of voters.
The success of President Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party, which almost tripled its 2004 result to 20.9 per cent and became the largest party in parliament, was therefore an important milestone in Indonesia’s democratisation.
Yudhoyono’s victory demonstrates that Indonesian voters not only enjoy punishing unpopular incumbents, but also like to reward those they see as successful and trustworthy administrators
The Democrat Party’s victory was all the more remarkable since only one year earlier, Indonesia had witnessed an unprecedented outpour of nostalgia for the authoritarian but effective rule of former long-time autocrat Suharto. While many Indonesians mourned the death of their former president in January 2008, the popularity of Yudhoyono had plummeted. Opinion polls revealed that most Indonesians viewed Suharto as the most successful president in the country’s history, raising doubts as to whether democracy would be able to sustain itself. Yudhoyono’s victory has mitigated these doubts, demonstrating that Indonesian voters not only enjoy punishing unpopular incumbents, but also like to reward those they see as successful and trustworthy administrators.
The strong support for Yudhoyono’s moderate Democrat Party – as well as for other parties representing the political mainstream – has further strengthened democracy as ‘the only game in town’ in Indonesia. Voters have overwhelmingly backed parties that unambiguously defend the current democratic system – much in contrast to Indonesian elections in the 1950s, when the electorate opted mostly for anti-system parties that promoted alternatives to Western-style parliamentarism. In 2009, not a single party publicly declared that it intended to establish a different political system if it came to power.
However, some of the parties that participated in the election were suspected of hiding non-reformist agendas behind the mask of their pro-democracy rhetoric. For example, former general and Suharto son-in-law Prabowo Subianto, who heads Partai Gerindra (Party of the Great Indonesia Movement), has paid lip-service to democratic principles, but most observers believe that his election as president would lead Indonesia onto the path of neo-authoritarianism. (See article by Dirk Tomsa in this edition). Similarly, the ex-commander of the armed forces, Wiranto, has pledged his loyalty to the democratic system, but leaders of his Hanura Party (People’s Conscience Party) have privately stated their ambition to roll back democratic reforms achieved since 1998.
Whatever their intention, the election results were a clear rebuttal for the two ex-generals. After their parties only received 4.5 and 3.8 per cent of the votes respectively, Prabowo grudgingly entered the presidential race as running-mate to Megawati Sukarnoputri, while Wiranto agreed to run as vice-presidential candidate to Golkar’s Jusuf Kalla. Neither ticket stands a realistic chance of winning, however, further reducing the likelihood of a neo-authoritarian turn in Indonesia in the foreseeable future.
Despite helping to consolidate the political centre, the 2009 election results also exposed some less promising trends. Most significantly, Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party partially owed its victory to a large-scale cash handout to millions of poor citizens prior to the elections. These payments had initially been presented in mid-2008 as compensation for rising fuel prices, but were continued even after the cost of fuel declined substantially later in the year. In addition, the government increased its operational payments to schools, asking them to no longer charge parents registration fees and other surcharges. Similarly, free health services were offered to poor Indonesians.
None of these initiatives – which cost the state more than US$2 billion – were introduced as part of long term economic development or poverty eradication programs. Instead, they appeared to be timed specifically to coincide with the pre-election period as a crude attempt to buy the support of poorer voters. While the 20 million Indonesian families benefiting from the assistance were obviously enthusiastic about the unexpected windfall, economists and civil society activists were mostly unsupportive. Economists did not believe that the measure would stimulate growth or reduce poverty, and anti-corruption groups disapproved of the use of state funds for electoral purposes.
Despite these criticisms, Yudhoyono’s short-term introduction of populist, pro-poor policies before the 2009 elections is almost certain to serve as a strategic model for future Indonesian ballots. With the Democrat Party’s support rising dramatically after the cash payments began in June 2008, Indonesia’s political elite will want to replicate this ‘success’ next time around – regardless of its consequences for the overall state of the economy.
Impacts of electoral reform
One of the most anticipated outcomes of the parliamentary ballot was the extent to which newly introduced electoral reforms would lead to changes in the socio-political composition of the legislature. In particular, observers were eager to ascertain whether these revisions to the election laws would increase the number of women in parliament or help to marginalise entrenched party elites in favour of political newcomers.
Initially, the new regulations had stipulated that seats would be allocated based on both party ranking and majority vote, and that every third candidate on party lists had to be female. However, in December 2008 the Constitutional Court declared this system unconstitutional, ordering the KPU to distribute seats only to those candidates with the most votes, regardless of party ranking or gender. This decision angered women’s groups, who argued that without affirmative action female candidates would find it difficult to get elected. Conversely, some civil society groups praised the court for throwing the electoral race wide open, threatening party leaders who in the past had exclusively relied on their rankings to win seats.
The number of women in the legislature rose from 10.7 per cent in 2004 to 18 per cent
Eventually, however, all societal groups could be satisfied with the result of the elections. For instance, 65.1 per cent of members of the 2009 parliament are newcomers, indicating a healthy balance between novices and experienced party leaders. The number of parliamentarians under 50 years of age increased from 49 per cent in 2004 to now 63.2 per cent, disproving the widespread view that Indonesia faces serious problems with its political regeneration. Similarly, the number of women in the legislature rose from 61 (10.7 per cent) in 2004 to 101 (18 per cent), and while this is less than women groups had hoped for, it nevertheless demonstrates that female candidates were not as disadvantaged by the fully open party list as initially feared.
Another much-discussed aspect of the elections was the alleged rise of television celebrities as a new political class in Indonesia. Prior to the elections, it was widely believed that the electoral reforms would mostly benefit actors, models and news anchors who had decided to run for parliament. With their high levels of name recognition and likeability it was assumed they would find it easy to gain the most votes in their electoral districts. Some observers even talked about the imminent Philippinisation of Indonesian politics, partly referring to the very prominent role of celebrities in politics there.
But the eventual results for the celebrities were much less compelling than the pre-election hype had suggested. Out of the 61 stars and starlets standing for election, only 15 gained seats. The party with the most celebrity candidates, PAN (National Mandate Party), saw only two of its 18 celebrity nominees winning office. Accordingly, while so-called ‘artis’ will be more influential in Indonesian politics than they were in the past, they are still far away from having the political significance their counterparts in the Philippines enjoy.
The most important impact of the changed electoral laws has been the remarkable concentration of the Indonesian party system. Due to the newly introduced parliamentary threshold of 2.5 per cent, by which only parties gaining above that portion of the vote are awarded seats in the national parliament, the number of political parties represented in the national legislature has dropped from 17 in 2004 to only nine.
With only nine parties competing for support, Indonesia is now steadily moving away from the atomised multi-partyism it has practised so far
Most importantly, the threshold will create a significant disincentive against the formation of splinter parties in the future. Previously, many internal conflicts in larger parties had been ‘resolved’ by the transformation of one of the quarrelling factions into a new party. These tiny parties would then be content with winning one or two seats in the national parliament, plus a few dozen more at the provincial and district levels across Indonesia. While the thresholds for local parliaments will only be imposed gradually in 2014 and 2019, the additional hurdle to gaining seats in the national legislature is certain to reduce the number of political parties in the longer term. This consolidation of the Indonesian party landscape will shorten the decision-making process in the legislature and simplify the organisation of elections. With only nine parties competing for support, Indonesia is now steadily moving away from the atomised multi-partyism it has practised so far. From the perspective of Indonesia’s democratic consolidation, this is certainly a welcome development.
The elections and democratic consolidation
Voters making their choices in Yogyakarta
The 2009 legislative elections have left a mixed legacy for further democratic consolidation in Indonesia. On the one hand, the quality of electoral management has declined, leading to lower voter turnout and challenges to the legitimacy of the ballot. With international attention declining, Indonesia is at risk of taking elections for granted and thus neglecting the careful preparations and significant investments needed to run them credibly. While there is little doubt that the 2009 results reflected the overall will of the voters, Indonesia can’t afford a further deterioration in the quality of elections if it wants to maintain its international image as a successfully consolidating democracy.
But despite the slump in electoral professionalism, the 2009 polls also exhibited some encouraging features. For the first time, an incumbent government party has won a post-Suharto election, voters have shunned parties with neo-authoritarian platforms, the elected parliament is arguably Indonesia’s youngest and most gender-balanced ever, and the party system has undergone a healthy process of concentration. Given that some observers had predicted chaos, violence and institutional breakdown as a result of the polls, these mixed consequences of the elections are a welcome outcome. ii
Marcus Mietzner (email@example.com) lectures in Indonesian and Southeast Asian politics and security at the Australian National University