Is Indonesian Democracy Still Trapped in Old-Style Politics?

At the conclusion of one Indonesian election, it might seem strange to contemplate the next, but the 2019 presidential election signposts a significant transition in politics that will be evident by the time the nation votes again in 2024, writes Donald Greenlees.

Residents show their fingers dipped in ink after distributing their voting rights in the Presidential election in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, Wednesday (April 14, 2019). (Photo by Basri Marzuki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The failure of Prabowo Subianto to achieve an unlikely victory over Joko Widodo in April represents another symbolic break with the corrosive politics of the New Order. This election almost certainly will be the last in which Indonesians are offered a candidate for the presidency who underwent political tutelage in the ‘echo chamber’ of Suharto’s authoritarian state.

As Suharto’s former son-in-law and one of his most powerful generals in the last days of the New Order, Prabowo is a product of that era. Until Widodo came along, every presidential candidate since Suharto’s downfall in 1998 was shaped in some way —either as beneficiary or opponent—of the regime. All came from the political or military elite.

Now, a new generation of political leadership is steadily emerging by virtue of the broadening and deepening of the political contest since Indonesia’s first post-authoritarian election on 7 June 1999. Two decades of democratic politics, which opened the way for new political parties and direct elections from presidency to municipality, has trained and elevated a class of politicians who have served their apprenticeships as provincial governors and mayors.

Many of them are making their claim for leadership in the footsteps of Widodo – they are popular and effective local administrators, several without strong elite, family or party backgrounds. Their qualifications for office were earned in the professions, business and hands-on public administration.

These new politicians, all aged in their 40s and 50s, are increasingly mentioned in political circles: the governors of West Java, Ridwan Kamil, Central Java, Ganjar Pranowo, South Sulawesi, Nurdin Abdullah and Jakarta, Anies Baswedan. They also include Prabowo’s running mate this year, the wealthy businessman and former deputy governor of Jakarta, Sandiaga Uno.

No doubt there will be others who will pursue well-groomed ambitions, including some with strong Islamic credentials. The chairman of the National Awakening Party (PKB), Abdul Muhaimin Iskandar trailed his coat to be Widodo’s running mate, presumably in the hope of clearing the pathway to a presidential nomination.

The arrival on the scene of this pool of political talent is welcomed as a source of hope for a younger generation of Indonesians who have a low regard for the old machine politics. Public opinion surveys have consistently shown the House of Representatives (DPR) is viewed as the most corruption prone national institution.

“Despite claims of conservativism (in the electorate), there is an undercurrent of people willing to support leaders who have leadership and technocratic ability,” says Philips Vermonte, executive director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. He adds this phenomenon might even reduce some of the traditional political divides.

The generational shift in politics, of which Widodo can count himself as a trailblazer, is bound to bring in fresh ideas and approaches. All of the newcomers came to political maturity during Indonesia’s reformasi years after the ouster of Suharto. They are well-placed to capture the imagination of the 88 million Indonesians—a third of the population— who were born after 1990.

Yet will it foreshadow a fundamental change to the way politics works in Indonesia?

New blood will have to mingle with old habits. Dynastic pretensions are unlikely to vanish. The presumed ambitions of Puan Maharani, 45-year-old daughter of Indonesian Democratic Party Struggle (PDIP) founder Megawati Sukarnoputri, Megawati’s niece, Puti Guntur Soekarno, 47, a DPR member who impressed as a candidate for deputy governor in East Java, and Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, 40, the son of the previous president, are a source of frequent speculation.

Even Widodo, whose own children have largely eschewed politics, has hinted his 28-year-old businessman son-in-law, Bobby Afif Nasution, is future political material.

Nor has the Suharto clan lost its appetite for power. Two political parties formed for the legislative elections that coincided with the presidential election were linked to the Suharto clan – part of a family move to rehabilitate its image. Both the Garuda Party and Workers (Berkarya) Party failed to meet the threshold required to obtain seats in the DPR.

Former President Suharto's eldest child Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana (known as Tutut), addresses local media in the Jalan Cendana home of Suharto. Photo by Donald Greenlees. 

A bigger challenge to continued democratisation and hopes for a new slate of candidates is a political party system that creates an uncomfortably close relationship between powerful business interests and parties and shields the parties from public scrutiny and democratic practice internally.  

The result is parties that are too often the fiefdoms of individuals—often party founders—and their wealthy sponsors. This unhealthy dependency fosters a great deal of the widespread corruption that undermines government efficiency and retards the economy.

The electoral system too favors the interests of the big established parties. It limits the size of the field and eliminates independent candidates by requiring presidential candidates to have the support of a party or parties that have either 20 percent of the seats in the DPR or have won 25 percent of the popular vote at the last election.  

It means the first task of any prospective candidate is to reach an accommodation with a small group of party leaders and business supporters.

Even the twin forces of incumbency and public popularity could not spare Widodo from having the ageing cleric Ma’ruf Amin foist on him by his political party coalition, whose sole motive appeared to be to block a younger, more able candidate getting a head start in the 2024 race for nomination.

The constraints the system places on choice are evident from the last two elections. The 2019 election was an uninspiring re-run of 2014 with Widodo and Prabowo once again facing off. In 2014, Widodo had to wait for Megawati’s blessing. She alone controlled his nomination via her command of PDIP and she hadn’t made up her mind whether to run again herself.

There are plans in this five-year term for the administration and the DPR to draft new legislation on elections and political parties.

On electoral reform, there is little expectation among analysts and political reform groups that the parties will agree to lower the bar for presidential candidacy.

One thing that might change is this year’s experiment with simultaneous presidential and legislative elections. The huge exercise in collecting the votes of 193 million eligible constituents for multiple levels of government on a single day took a toll on the system and poll workers.

Another is that the absurd length of the official presidential campaign—it started last September—might be reduced. A shorter campaign should reduce the misuse of state resources to support incumbents – a prohibition that analysts say has been flagrantly ignored. Voter lists might have to be finalised earlier too. This would allow more time to pick up irregularities, which suspicious candidates are more inclined to put down to conspiracy rather than error.

Political party reform will be even more sensitive. Activist groups want to see greater transparency and accountability in party finances and a greater degree of internal democracy. They want the parties to do more to open up their books and be subject to tougher rules governing donations from rich benefactors.

The Ministry of Justice and Human Rights has commissioned a paper by a group of academic lawyers on political party reform which will serve as the basis of a draft law to be discussed with the DPR.

A better functioning electoral system and more accountable political parties would be the cornerstone of efforts to revive the incomplete promise of democracy. It could even encourage a greater degree of pluralism at a time when religious and ethnic divides are starker than ever.

Whether political reforms are pursued and are anything more than cosmetic will be a test of Widodo’s presidency and his ability to dictate to the parties. In his first term, he showed scant regard for the finer points of democracy as he focused on his nation-building agenda.

For now, the elections are a reminder of both the institutional and attitudinal shortcomings of Indonesian democracy. Prabowo refuses go away quietly, insisting his private count shows he won the election with 62 percent of the popular vote. He lingers like Banquo’s ghost to spoil Widodo’s feast. The actual count, after tabulation of about half the votes, shows Widodo leading 56.2 percent to 43.8 percent. The final result is due on 22 May.

In refusing to acknowledge defeat, Prabowo, the former general, in all likelihood is trying to salvage what he can from defeat. The price of his acquiescence to the will of the voters might be to give him some say in the post-election carve up of power and spoils. It is all too redolent of the uncompromising politics of the New Order.

Donald Greenlees is senior adviser to Asialink and visiting fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.  The views expressed are his own.