In April 2019, Indonesia completed its fifth national elections since the fall of the authoritarian New Order government in 1998. This constitutes a significant success, given some of the gloomy predictions for the viability of Indonesian democracy at the time of the regime change. It also presents a remarkable exception from a tradition of democratic breakdown, populist revival and authoritarian endurance in many of Indonesia’s Southeast Asian neighbours.
What’s more, Indonesia’s elections have generally been considered free, fair and competitive, with few credible suggestions of systematic fraud in national-level ballots. Thus, the country of 260 million people (and almost 200 million voters in 2019) deserves credit for pulling off such a logistically, politically and social challenging feat five times in a row.
But this overall success should not distract from a host of problems that continue to undermine the elections’ democratic quality. In recent years, international democracy indexes have recorded a slow but substantial decline in a range of democratic indicators, and many authors have begun to diagnose a new phase of democratic backsliding after a decade of stagnation.
Accordingly, it would be complacent to view the conduct of Indonesia’s fifth post-authoritarian election as evidence for the polity’s continued consolidation and maturing. Instead, the seemingly paradoxical concurrence of these elections with patterns of democratic decline should be used as a trigger to investigate how structural problems inherent in the electoral system have contributed to Indonesia’s apparent inability to move to the next level of democratic development.
This new discussion paper, Indonesia’s electoral system: why it needs reform, therefore highlights some of the main “construction sites” of the electoral system that will require attention in the years to come. In doing so, it draws from a June 2019 conference on electoral reform held in Jakarta at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), in cooperation with the Australian National University’s Department of Political and Social Change within the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. The conference brought together Indonesian and international experts and practitioners in the field of electoral system reform.
While a wide range of views were expressed, the paper focuses on those areas in need of reform that received the most consideration at the conference. These were: the dysfunctional political funding system; the prevalence of vote buying under the open party list system; the continuously tightened party entry and nomination thresholds; the struggle to increase female representation in parliament; and possible mechanisms to express dissatisfaction over the status quo without abstaining. How these problems are fixed should be subject to a democratic and inclusive discussion within Indonesian society at large—and not only among elite actors interested in defending the status quo.
Click here to read the paper in English.
Marcus Mietzner is Associate Professor at the Department of Political and Social Change, Australian National University