Indonesia Lawmakers Restore Real Local Elections

Apparently intimidated by outraged public opinion, the Indonesian House of Representatives has backed away from a controversial bill outlawing direct elections of regional leaders, which would have restored a system in place during the Suharto dictatorship.

The law, enacted last September supposedly at the behest of outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudoyono, took away electoral power from voters and gave local legislative councils the function of appointing local officials including district heads, mayors and governors. It would have unwound one of the country's most profound democratic reforms.

The move was said to have been engineered to block reform policies expected to emanate from the administration of incoming President Joko Widodo, who had campaigned as a reformer after a successful reign as Jakarta governor, during which he cleaned up some of the city’s worst practices. The repeal of the law also represents a signal achievement for Jokowi, whose political career stems from the 2004 reformed electoral system.

The attempt to stop direct local elections was strongly backed by losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, who reacted to his defeat with anger and recrimination.

Most of the regional legislative councils are dominated by the opposition. The house, at the point the reversal of democracy was enacted, was largely controlled by the so-called Red-White Coalition, which include representatives of the National Mandate Party (PAN), the Golkar Party and Gerindra, headed by Prabowo.

The Democrats walked out of a plenary session held in September to vote on scrapping the direct elections. That left political factions led by Prabowo in a position to outvote political factions supporting direct elections, earning Yudhoyono fierce criticism and accusations that he had lied to work behind the scenes to kill direct elections while issuing public statements supporting them.

On Jan. 20, the house voted to ratify an emergency decree, called a perppu, hastily declared by Yudhono in the wake of the criticism, to restore democracy although details remain to be worked out. The House and the government are now working against time to settle technicalities. Local candidates must register in less than a month to contest 204 regional races.

The affair is yet another episode that can be expected to stain Yudhoyono’s presidential resume after a successful first term as a reformer and modernizer. That reputation was buried after 2009 under a welter of scandals during his second term, during which he was regarded as having largely given in to figures out to stop reform. His Democratic Party was badly damaged by the arrests of most of the top hierarchy on bribery charges and some allegations were launched against members of his own family.

The appointive system debacle sparked outrage across the country and resulted in accusations that the House and the outgoing president had betrayed the will of the people and intended to return government to a system similar to what went on during the 32-year reign of the former strongman Suharto.

The ensuing criticism impelled Yudhoyono to say it had never been his intention to do away with the democratic system, which were passed before his first elective term. The bill undermining local polls was drafted by Yudhoyono's Home Affairs Ministry.

“It’s a people’s victory,” Arie Sudjito, a political expert from the Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, told local media. “Now, the perppu has become a law. So we can begin direct elections in many regions across the nation.”

All 10 factions at the House on Monday expressed their commitment to ratify the perppu. House Speaker Setya Novanto called on Commission II members to expedite the drafting of the new bill and conclude the ratification process before the House sitting period ends on Feb. 18.

“I have asked each faction to conclude the revision during this sitting period so they would not disrupt the simultaneous regional elections schedule,” said Setya, a Golkar politician. Home Affairs Minister Tjahjo Kumolo said the government was open to revisions and pledged to work with the House “intensively” on the planned revisions.