Following months of speculation, the Indonesian government and lawmakers have finally announced plans to draft an umbrella law that promises a fundamental overhaul of the country’s electoral rules.

The law will address the urgent need to streamline overlapping regulations and the logistical challenges of organizing simultaneous national and regional elections. But the most radical measure under consideration is to scrap the current system of regional elections that allows citizens to vote directly for their local executives, who do most of the day-to-day governing in Indonesia. These include thirty-three provincial governors, 415 district heads, and ninety-three mayors.

Questioning the “democratic maturity” of the voters who elected them just a few months ago, the government and allied parties in parliament have proposed reverting to an indirect system, in which local executives would be elected by regional legislatures. Indirect regional elections were previously used under the New Order dictatorship of President Suharto (1966–1998) and continued during the early years of democratization until direct elections were introduced in 2005.

Sana Jaffrey
Sana Jaffrey is a nonresident scholar in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Her research focuses on violent conflict and the challenges of state-building in developing democracies.
More >

One option under review is to revert to indirect regional polls uniformly across Indonesia. Another is to develop an asymmetric model of regional elections. This scheme would allow direct elections in regions where voters are considered competent enough to make responsible electoral choices but revert to the indirect system in areas that are deemed not ready to bear such burdens. The result will be a two-tier democracy.

If adopted, these measures would constitute the most serious course reversal during two decades of democratic reform in Indonesia. Representation and accountability are dual requisites for any democracy. Ironically, elected representatives in Indonesia are using their popular mandate to dismantle sources of democratic accountability. In September 2019, the parliament passed a bill to gut the country’s highly regarded anti-graft agency, which served as an institutional check on corrupt governance. Despite days of massive protests, the controversial law has gone into effect. Denying voters a direct say in evaluating and punishing incompetent executives will weaken another, in this case, electoral source of government accountability.

Direct Elections Empower Voters

Direct elections are not inherently more democratic than indirect polls that are used to elect local executives in long-standing democracies such as Australia, India, and the United Kingdom. In Indonesia, however, the switch from indirect to direct regional elections was implemented to devolve more power to citizens, who had previously been denied any meaningful say in their own governance.

Under the New Order, local legislatures simply rubberstamped the executives appointed by Jakarta. After the democratic transition in 1998, local lawmakers were free to choose regional executives. But the dominance of old elites in regional legislatures and collusive horse-trading for votes between parties meant that citizens’ preferences carried little weight. The introduction of direct elections in 2005 mitigated the effect of these authoritarian legacies. Finally, citizens could vote for candidates who best represent their policy preferences and vote out those who do not perform.

On average, the switch to direct regional elections has produced modest improvements in governance and high levels of public participation in the political process. The system’s greatest achievement, however, is that it enables Indonesian voters to occasionally stumble upon competent leaders. The most popular politicians in Indonesia today started their careers as regional executives. The ability to appeal directly to voters and prove their administrative skills has helped these politicians chart a path to national politics, despite limited political connections.

The most prominent beneficiary of the system is President Joko Widodo. He first rose to national fame as the mayor of his hometown, before being elected as the governor of Jakarta—despite his humble origins. He acknowledged as much and vowed to defend direct regional elections back in 2014 when, in the aftermath of his presidential victory, the parliament suddenly passed a bill to revert to the indirect model. Public furor over the move pressured outgoing president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to annul the legislation with an executive order.

This time, however, Widodo’s position on the issue is ambivalent. His spokesman issued a statement that affirms his commitment to preserving the current system. Yet he has repeatedly blamed regional executives for hindering investment in his infrastructure projects. The fact that his own minister of home affairs, known to be a close ally, is now leading the charge against direct regional elections indicates that Widodo is open to accepting at least a partial reversal.

Returning to Indirect Elections Is Unlikely to Improve Governance

The government’s arguments in favor of abolishing direct regional elections are many and keep evolving. Initially, state officials emphasized the high operational cost of holding hundreds of executive and legislative elections separately. Then the focus shifted to corruption. Critics argued that the system of direct regional elections encourages candidates to purchase party nominations and engage in vote-buying to secure victory. Once in office, the argument goes, they have incentives to recover these costs by embezzling public funds.

More recently, the risk of ethnic polarization and violent clashes was presented as a reason for ending direct elections in areas with a history of conflict. Finally, senior government and party officials have repeatedly cited research that claims voters in less economically developed areas lack the capacity to elect competent individuals to office.

There is no denying the troubling state of local governance in Indonesia. But the government’s proposal to address these problems with a full or partial return to the indirect model of regional elections is flawed in several ways.

Cutting Corruption Requires a Fix for Parties, Not Elections

First, it misdiagnoses defects in the party system as problems in the electoral system. It is true that candidates spend astronomical sums to “rent” political parties’ support and buy votes from citizens.

However, most political parties in Indonesia also use direct regional elections to raise operational funds. Instead of vetting competent candidates and disciplining them for poor performance, parties tend to auction nominations for election of local executives. Furthermore, most parties lack the coherent ideological platform necessary to build a committed base of supporters. This makes vote-buying an appealing alternative for connecting with voters.

A return to the indirect system is unlikely to cut down on corruption. As the government’s own coordinating minister for legal, political, and security affairs has noted, the change will only shift the funds used to buy votes from citizens to the coffers of party officials in local legislatures. This suggests that the solution is not to change electoral rules but to reform the system of party financing and strengthen the authority of election-monitoring bodies.

Peace Comes With More Democracy, Not Less

Second, the government’s proposal ignores one of the most important lessons of democratization in Indonesia: resolving violent conflicts requires more democracy, not less. Contrary to the government’s claims, the switch from indirect to direct elections is associated with a dramatic decline in political violence. The most devastating ethnic riots in Indonesia took place between 1998 and 2003, when the system of indirect elections was still in place. Distrust of the voting process in local legislatures and disputed results of regional head races exacerbated ethnic tensions in the country’s central and eastern regions, flaring up the violence that led to the deaths of nearly 10,000 people.

The subsequent introduction of direct regional elections has reduced the risk of violence by increasing transparency of the voting process and setting legal procedures for challenging results. It has also created informal rules, such as mixed ethnic pairs of candidates and their deputies, to broaden the voter base and discourage the use of divisive appeals in campaigns. According to the National Violence Monitoring System database commissioned by the government, five deaths from election-related violence were recorded in these post-conflict areas during the first ten years of direct regional elections. Far from reducing vulnerability to conflict, a return to the indirect system would reintroduce political uncertainty and increase the risk of violence.

Apart from curbing ethnic conflict, direct regional elections have also been an essential component of successful peacebuilding in the province of Aceh, formerly the site of Indonesia’s most protracted insurgency. Increased political competition in regional elections combined with special autonomy concessions have helped transform a rebel organization into a political party. Elections have been by and large peaceful, apart from sporadic attacks on candidates. However, the electoral process in Aceh has worked because it was preceded by a comprehensive peace agreement that offered political solutions to the underlying conflict.

As the government considers electoral changes in the region of Papua, home to a violent separatist movement, Aceh’s experience offers a valuable lesson. As long as a political solution to the conflict there remains elusive, electoral overhaul in Papua is unlikely to significantly improve security. However, singling out the province for abolishing direct regional elections on account of its vulnerability to conflict may deepen the strong sense of discrimination and resentment many Papuans already feel.

Voters Care About Rights, Not Costs

Third, the purely utilitarian view of elections articulated by government and party officials privileges bureaucratic efficiency over citizens’ rights. Despite being presented with a narrow bandwidth of candidate quality, Indonesian voters have shown they can identify good leaders and punish non-performing ones by voting out four in every ten incumbents running for re-election.

Yet lawmakers remain skeptical about voters’ capacity to make responsible electoral choices. As a solution, the government plans to construct an index to judge which regions of Indonesia can be trusted to choose their leaders directly, and which areas require guidance from local lawmakers. This index will most likely be based on socioeconomic indicators and, if implemented, will result in institutionalized discrimination against voters in the poorest parts of the country.

The proposal to revert to indirect elections as a cost-cutting measure also ignores the relative value that voters derive from the current system. Repeated surveys conducted between 2012 and 2019 have shown that 93 percent of voters are in favor of preserving direct elections and 67 percent are in favor of continuing with the current system “no matter what the cost.” This suggests that Indonesian taxpayers are collectively willing to bear the higher costs of holding direct elections in order to have a greater say in who governs them.

Who Will Guard Indonesia’s Democratic Gains?

Indonesia’s current electoral rules were designed through a long and slow process described as ”a game of inches.” At the beginning of the country’s democratic journey, parties with different interests and constituencies negotiated for years, considering the implication of each change and bartering support of one amendment for another. The reversal of these rules is proving to be considerably less laborious, now that the interests of different players are closely aligned.

Abolishing direct elections could enable dominant political parties to dilute accountability and block the rise of upstart politicians, who use their direct mandate to challenge party leaders. For the president, it may provide an opportunity to curb the independence of local executives and accelerate the implementation of infrastructure projects. Even the smaller parties that have emerged as the biggest winners of the direct system appear to be acquiescing to the change. What they stand to gain in return is still unclear.

Can anyone stem this tide of change? Regional executives, who would be most directly affected by a return to the old system, may be expected to mount a challenge. However, if the government begins by abolishing direct elections in a few regions at a time, it may prevent the emergence of an effective opposing coalition of regional executives. The constitutional court could eventually intervene, but any judicial recourse will depend on the specific legislation that is eventually passed.

The responsibility of guarding Indonesia’s democratic gains may fall yet again on the country’s civil society groups. But the odds appear to be stacked against them. Recent experience with the anti-corruption law has shown the limits of creating change through spontaneous mass protests. Even after two decades of democratic rule, activists face a government that is increasingly uninterested in heeding public opinion and a state that remains adept at inhibiting dissent. Unless civil society actors can translate their demands into a coherent political message and a viable electoral alternative to existing parties, making noise on the outside might only limit the damage from planned changes to electoral rules, not prevent such fallout altogether.