Karina M. Tehusijarana, Jakarta – Arguments from government and political party officials against direct elections – both at the regional and national level – fail to pass muster as public enthusiasm for them remains high, researchers from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said in a political review of 2019 on Sunday.
The idea of abolishing direct elections has been floated ever since they were established in 2004, with the last major attempt in 2014 overturned by a regulation in lieu of law (Perppu) issued by then-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
The proposition has popped up again recently, with Home Affairs Minister Tito Karnavian questioning the "relevance" of direct regional elections and Indonesia's largest Islamic organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, suggesting that the planned constitutional amendment should include the abolition of direct presidential elections.
CSIS researcher Arya Fernandes said direct regional elections had been proven to be a great means of recruitment for political parties. They had also resulted in the emergence of prominent regional heads who gained national recognition, such as West Java's Ridwan Kamil, South Sulawesi's Nurdin Abdullah and, of course, President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, who began his political career as a mayor in Surakarta before entering national politics.
Arya added that the voter turnout in the last batch of regional elections in 2018 reached 73 percent, higher than the turnout during the 2014 and 2009 presidential elections. "So there is a lot of enthusiasm from the public to actively participate in the process," he said.
Arya also pointed out the weaknesses in the three main arguments in favor of returning the regional head election process to the Regional Legislative Councils.
"First is about the high political costs, second is the potential for political conflict and third is the political polarization [caused by direct regional elections]," he said.
Arya said the argument against the high cost of elections was weak because a large chunk of those costs was due to endorsement fees charged by political parties to potential candidates. "If parties remove that and become more transparent then the initial costs will be reduced."
As for other expenses such as campaign costs, Arya said the General Elections Commission (KPU) had already made efforts to help candidates save money, such as by providing some campaign materials.
He further said the potential for conflict and polarization was also a weak argument as the number of election-related conflicts was very low and most of them were between the candidates themselves, rather than voters, and polarization only occurred when races were particularly competitive.
"If we look at the 2018 regional elections and prior elections, there was not much polarization outside of Jakarta," he said. "There are solutions to reducing polarization without abolishing direct elections, such as by increasing the number of candidates."
"It's the political players who are causing the problems, not the political rights," CSIS executive director Philips Vermonte summed up.
CSIS researcher Edbert Gani also criticized the planned constitutional amendments, which lawmakers initially said would be limited to reinstating the now-defunct State Policy Guidelines (GBHN).
"In our view reinstating the GBHN means making the MPR [People's Consultative Assembly] the country's highest body once again. That is not in line with our presidential system of government," Edbert said.
He added that the more recently suggested additional amendments, including possibly scrapping direct presidential elections and increasing the presidential term limit from two to three, showed how amendments could be expanded depending on the whims of the big parties in the legislature.
President Jokowi himself recently said "it would be better" if there were no amendments, a statement that Philips said the CSIS appreciated. "It shows that Pak Jokowi is institutionalizing the democratic political process based on civic processes in Indonesia," he said.
Golkar Party lawmaker Ace Hasan Syadzily, who also attended the discussion, said that Golkar was firmly in favor of keeping both direct regional and presidential elections.
"This is in line with the new paradigm of the Golkar Party, which is focused on the sovereignty of the people," Ace said.
He added that while the party believed the Constitution should be "continually evaluated", there was currently no urgency for an amendment and that the GBHN could be reinstated through law rather than a constitutional amendment.
Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) politician Dwi Ria Latifa was more equivocal, saying that the party was not seeking to change the election system but that the current system was not perfect. "The PDI-P wants there to be an evaluation of [direct regional elections], particularly on issues like the neutrality of civil servants and the prevalence of money politics," she said.
She also denied that the party and Jokowi were at odds regarding the amendments, arguing that one of the decisions ratified at the PDI-P's national congress in August was a "limited constitutional amendment" focused on the GBHN.
"The PDI-P has made its stance on the amendment clear through the congress and President Jokowi is a PDI-P member, so I think you can conclude [what his position is] yourself," she said.