JAKARTA - Indonesian president-elect Joko Widodo accused his opponents Friday of stealing "people's political rights" after suffering an early defeat in parliament that analysts described as a setback for his ambitious reform agenda.
The outgoing legislature voted early Friday to scrap the direct election of local officials, a heavy blow for Widodo, who rose to power through the system and whose party had campaigned against the proposal.
The new law takes away the people's right to choose mayors, provincial governors and district heads across the archipelago, and instead hands power to local parliaments to pick them.
While opponents of the current system argued that holding so many elections was hugely costly and often caused conflicts, supporters said that doing away with the polls would be a setback for democracy and a return to a system used during the time of dictator Suharto, toppled in 1998.
The move to abolish the elections, which have been used for the past decade, was seen as revenge by political opponents of Widodo, known by his nickname Jokowi. He started his career by winning direct election as a mayor before securing the presidency in July.
Parties that backed his rival, ex-general Prabowo Subianto, and have a majority in parliament provided support for the bill.
There had been much opposition to the plan and Widodo, a former furniture exporter from a humble background, sought on Friday to appeal to the large sections of the public who were disappointed.
"The public can see which parties have taken away people's political rights. Take note," he told reporters in the capital Jakarta.
Observers said the defeat is a bad start for Widodo, who will be inaugurated on October 20, as he will need to win support in parliament in future to push through reforms aimed at reviving a slowing economy and strengthening the country's welfare system.
"This has shown us that a strong power in parliament can come up with a decision that is the complete opposite of what is in the people's interest," Titi Anggraini, executive director of pro-democracy group Perludem, which opposed the bill, told AFP.
"It is very possible that future policies put forward by the government will receive a similar response." Analyst Helmi Arman from Citigroup added: "It may dim market expectations on the reform outlook." There was much anger directed at outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono after his Democratic Party, which has more than a quarter of lawmakers in parliament, walked out during the vote, essentially handing defeat to Widodo and other parties opposing the bill.
Perludem's Anggraini said that pro-democracy groups were considering a challenge to the law at the Constitutional Court, although it was not clear if the move stood any chance of success.