Jun 04, 2023 Last Updated 2:32 AM, May 31, 2023

Local democracy

The entrance to a local election booth during the 2008 West Java election. (Ikhlasul Amal/Flickr)

Marcus Mietzner

When businessman Erlangga Satriagung met an official of one of Surabaya’s largest parties in early 2005 to discuss his plans to run in the upcoming mayoral polls, he was realistic enough to expect questions about his financial resources. He knew the unwritten but non-negotiable rules and was well aware he would have to set aside part of his wealth for whatever party was prepared to nominate him. But the figure that the party leader mentioned as the ‘price’ for his candidacy blew Erlangga off his chair. ‘I’d need a truck to transport the money he asked for,’ he complained. Little wonder Erlangga later settled for nomination by a much smaller, but also much less expensive party.

Erlangga’s experience reflects a typical pattern in Indonesia’s latest experiment with democracy. In the middle of this year, the country held the first direct elections of local government officials, a process popularly known by its Indonesian acronym pilkada. Thanks to new laws on local government passed in 2004, Indonesians now have the opportunity to directly vote for governors (at the provincial level) and bupati (at the district level). Between June and September 2005, a total of 191 elections were held. In coming years, there will be more local elections whenever the term of an incumbent expires in a particular region.

Previously, governors and bupati were elected by their respective local legislatures. Under Suharto’s authoritarian New Order, this meant that the central government picked the winners via its all-dominant electoral machine, Golkar. In the first five years of the post-Suharto era, on the other hand, candidates could determine the outcome of elections by providing financial incentives to local party factions and individual parliamentarians. ‘Money politics’ was the order of the day, and whoever could pay the most usually triumphed. More often than not, local party branches would completely disintegrate during such ballots as their members committed their votes to different candidates.

The new system of direct elections was designed to close the door to excessive money politics in local legislatures and introduce transparency and accountability to the electoral process. Some observers even hoped that civil society activists and popular grassroots leaders would be able to break the grip of entrenched bureaucratic elites on local government. This was a path, or so it was hoped, to put in place a new political class and revitalise stalled political and social reform.

New system, old elites

These hopes were largely unfulfilled. As Erlangga Satriagung’s experience indicates, the availability of campaign funds continues to determine a candidate’s ability to join the electoral race. This limits the pool of nominees to the same wealthy and influential members of the elite that dominated local politics under the New Order and the immediate post-Suharto period.

In part, this outcome was a result of a provision of the new legislation which makes political parties the crucial players in nominating candidates for the direct polls. Candidates can only run if nominated by parties (or coalitions of parties) that gained 15 per cent of the votes in the 2004 elections (or 15 per cent of the seats in local parliaments). This stipulation effectively gave local party branches the ability to auction nominations to the highest bidders. It required candidates to not only raise funds to pay for their own costly popular campaigns, but also to hand money to the parties that nominated them. As a result, the cost of candidacy actually increased when compared to the previous elections of governors and bupati. So, we can only assume, has the pressure on successful candidates to ‘recoup’ their investments once in office.

Consequently, the beneficiaries of the new electoral laws were local strongmen with large financial resources and links to the old regime. An analysis I have made of the socio-economic backgrounds of candidates in 50 local polls shows that 36 per cent of them were career bureaucrats, 28 per cent entrepreneurs and eight per cent retired military and police officers. Another 22 per cent were party officials, and only six per cent were academics or civil society leaders. These figures show that the direct elections did not facilitate the rise of new political elites; instead, they simply forced the old elites to play by new rules.

How relevant were the parties?

The weakness of the parties and the strong role of local power brokers rendered many of the party-based analyses of the election results meaningless. Statisticians noted that candidates nominated by Megawati Soekarnoputri’s PDIP (Indonesia Democracy Party of Struggle) won in more areas than previously expected, while Golkar lost in several of its strongholds. Many commentators in the Indonesian press debated at length what this might mean.

However, these results do not reflect the real power constellations on the ground. In many cases, Golkar cadres who could not secure the nomination of their own party (often because they had underbid wealthier rivals) would seek candidacy through rival parties like PDIP. In North Sulawesi, for example, all five gubernatorial candidates had strong links with Golkar. While the winner, Sinyo H Sarundajang, was PDIP’s candidate, his campaign team made no secret of the fact that he would have preferred to run for Golkar. Overall, there were many more Golkar-affiliated bureaucrats who gained office during the polls than the official statistics indicated.

The fact that candidates chose their political vehicles almost randomly was also highlighted by the nature of the coalitions created to support particular nominees. Almost every imaginable combination of parties was tried out somewhere in the archipelago, with staunchly Islamist parties and missionary Christians settling on joint candidates if the electoral arithmetic so required.

Impetus for change

While most beneficiaries of the elections came from familiar elite backgrounds, the voters also provided important impetus for change. The majority of the poll results suggest that although their options were limited, when they had the chance, voters generally made informed and responsible choices.

First of all, widespread fears that incumbents would storm to office unchallenged did not materialise. Their dominance over government resources and patronage networks was certainly an advantage, but it did not translate into automatic victory at the ballot box, with close to 40 per cent of incumbents standing for re-election losing their jobs. The election results in some areas suggest that voters paid close attention to the track records of incumbents, and did not hesitate to throw out poor performers and reward those who had delivered better public services. Some of the most controversial governors who had constantly faced allegations of corruption and mismanagement were removed from office, including A J Sondakh in North Sulawesi and Sjachriel Darham in South Kalimantan.

On the other hand, officials with widely praised performance records were returned to power, often with huge margins. The governor of Jambi, Zulkifli Nurdin, was re-elected with around 80 per cent of the votes, as was Rustriningsih, the female bupati of Kebumen in Central Java. Gamawan Fauzi, the former bupati of Solok and recipient of a prestigious anti-corruption award, even climbed a level, becoming governor of West Sumatra.

Failure of extremism

Besides ending the terms of unpopular incumbents, voters also showed little attraction to candidates whose campaign platforms appealed to exclusivist ethnic or religious sentiments. In most cases, candidates had already anticipated the moderate attitudes of their electorates by nominating multi-religious and multi-ethnic tickets. In areas with heterogeneous religious and ethnic populations, candidates tended to link up with running mates from a different faith or ethnic group. In Poso, for example, where the 1999 bupati elections had triggered bloody clashes between Christians and Muslims, all tickets standing for the 2005 polls were multi-religious.

In the few instances where candidates raised exclusivist sentiments to gain votes, the electorate almost invariably punished them. Professor Usop, infamous Dayak leader during the 2001 massacre of Madurese and a close second in Central Kalimantan’s last gubernatorial elections, this time finished last with only four per cent of the votes.

Voters have also demonstrated considerable maturity by accepting the defeats of the candidates they opted for, much more so than the respective nominees themselves. Post-election violence was largely limited to attacks by paid crowds on the offices of local electoral commissions, which typically died down after a few days. In no case did electoral defeats lead to extensive communal violence, including in conflict-prone areas like Maluku, Central Sulawesi and Central Kalimantan.

Finally, fears that active and retired military officers would do exceptionally well in the polls and therefore pave the way for the remilitarisation of politics proved baseless. While some retired officers won in a small number of regencies, mostly in Sulawesi, many more of their colleagues lost. Military officers who often relied on little else than their reputation as former army men were no match for the many experienced and cashed-up bureaucrats eager to fulfil their life-time dreams of a top executive position.

Indonesia’s first direct local elections have not fundamentally altered the socio-economic composition of the ruling elite. But they have broadened the opportunities for the electorate to exert influence on the results of inter-elite competition. At the current stage of Indonesia’s democratic consolidation, this is a respectable outcome.

Marcus Mietzner (mamietzner@yahoo.com) completed his PhD on Indonesian civil-military relations at the Australian National University this year. He now lives in Jakarta where he is an observer of political and social affairs.

Inside Indonesia 85: Jan-Mar 2006


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