Why direct local elections matter to Indonesia's democracy

Why direct local elections matter to Indonesia's democracy

SINGAPORE - The defining story of Indonesian politics this year has been Mr Joko Widodo's (Jokowi's) rise from small-town mayor, via the Jakarta governorship, to become Indonesia's president-elect. Mr Joko personifies the emergence of a new leadership in Indonesia.

Mr Joko's ascent to the presidency makes the decision of Indonesia's outgoing Parliament last week, to abolish direct elections for mayors and governors, particularly ironic. He was one of the first mayors in Indonesia to gain office via these direct elections, which in 2005 replaced the indirect election of these officials by local parliaments.

Why are direct local elections so important? Because they have introduced accountability at the local level when previously there was next to none.

It is not inherently undemocratic for parliaments to elect mayors and governors, if voters can reliably predict which candidate each parliamentarian will vote for, and reward or punish them for their decision come election time.

But local parliaments did not operate that way when they had the power to elect mayors and governors between 1999 and 2004. Nor are local parliaments likely to operate that way in Indonesia within the foreseeable future.

Instead, Indonesian parties have formed coalitions to support mayoral and gubernatorial candidates in unpredictable ways. Coalitions more typically pay heed to numbers and to being part of government than to shared platforms. Vote buying was also rife during indirect elections.

Direct elections ended neither unpredictable party behaviour nor candidates' purchase of party support. Coalitions of convenience still nominate candidates, and obtaining a party's support can be expensive, as is running as an independent. But giving the people the final say on who wins office has transformed the nature of the contest.

If they get onto the ballot, popular candidates can now win office even if a majority of parliamentarians oppose them. Re-election also hinges on the public's assessment of mayors' and governors' performance, rather than keeping sufficient parliamentarians onside.

Celebrated Surabaya Mayor Tri Rismaharini well demonstrates the importance of this difference. Ms Rismaharini could presumably lose office in an indirect election, considering Surabaya's Parliament has previously tried to impeach her. This outcome would seem far less likely in a direct election, given her apparent local popularity.

We should not be starry-eyed about how much accountability direct elections have produced. At gubernatorial level, recent elections suggest incumbents enjoy a significant advantage over challengers. But scholars also highlight changes in local leaders' behaviour as a result of direct public accountability.

A team of World Bank economists found that local leaders increased their spending as direct elections were first introduced, although primarily outside of Java and Bali, and when non-incumbents won. Their timeframe was too short though to conclude whether services improved.

Political scientist Edward Aspinall also argues that local health schemes have proliferated in close connection with direct elections, with virtually all serious contenders now promising health care. The Healthy Jakarta Card scheme introduced by Mr Joko is just one example.

Direct local elections are also an important if flawed pathway for new candidates to enter the political system. Political scientists who have investigated candidates' backgrounds in numerous local elections conclude that established elites still dominate.

New-style mayors and governors have won office in some regions though. They spoke out as Parliament shaped to abolish direct elections.

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