How Indonesians lost their direct local voting rights

JAKARTA, Indonesia – While most Indonesians were sleeping in the early hours of Friday, September 26, their elected representatives dismantled a cornerstone of the country's democracy. 

After a politicized plenary debate that lasted more than 10 hours, the House of Representatives voted 226-135 to pass the controversial Regional Elections Bill (RUU Pilkada).

Indonesians will now no longer be able to directly vote for their governors, mayors and district heads – a stunning reversal for one of the most widely praised emerging democracies in the world.

This comes just two months after Indonesia voted as president Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, a furniture businessman who would not have become Solo mayor or Jakarta governor if not for direct local elections.

The country will go back to having local legislatures (DPRD) choose the regional executive leaders – the way it used to be, until post-Suharto era reforms led to Indonesians being able to directly vote for them for the first time in 2005.

Democrat walkout

Thursday's plenary was expected to be a close vote, with 246 of the lawmakers in attendance belonging to political parties that support the bill, and 250 from those rejecting it.

The parties that stated their opposition to the bill crucially involved the ruling Democratic Party, which controls the largect bloc with 148 lawmakers. The party was initially thought to be voting for the bill – alongside the Red and White Coalition led by losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto's Gerindra Party. (READ: Prabowo's revenge? New bill puts voting rights at risk)

But a week before the vote, the Democrats announced they "should be in line with the thinking of the people, including the aspiration of regional leaders, who do not want the political rights of the citizens of Indonesia to be removed".

In other words, they said they supported direct local elections, but added that the system needed to be improved to reduce costs and corruption. The Democrats listed these improvements as 10 'prerequisites' – including holding local elections simultaneously, having local governments pay for them, a public test for integrity and competence for candidates, accountability on use of campaign funds, a ban on black campaigns – that need to be met for them to support direct local elections.

During the plenary debate, the 3 other parties rejecting the bill – led by the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), Jokowi's party – agreed to the Democrats' version.

But after midnight, after another break for political lobbying, the House leadership represented by Golkar's Priyo Budi Santoso announced there would only be two voting options: for or against the bill.

In a surprising announcement, the Democrats chose neither. "Because the leadership did not accommodate the third option, the Democratic Party will choose a neutral position and walk out," Democrat lawmaker Benny K. Harman announced. 

Instead of improving the direct local election system, therefore, the Democrats led to its elimination.

Setback for democracy

Bandung Mayor Ridwan Kamil, one of those who publicly rejected the controversial bill, tweeted that the country's democracy had suffered a setback. 

Opponents of the bill have said strong leaders like Jokowi, Ridwan, and Jakarta Deputy Governor Basuki "Ahok" Purnama – who did not come from the political elite – would not have been voted into power if not for direct local elections.

In fact, analysts see the suddent strong support for the bill as a reaction to Jokowi's election as president. The bill was initially filed in 2012 but failed to gather strong support until after this year's presidential election saw an outsider like Jokowi win over the elite. All of a sudden, Prabowo's Red and White coalition began trumpeting the bill's merits.

An analysis by Tempo newspaper revealed the local legislatures in 31 of Indonesia's 33 provinces are now controlled by the Red and White coalition. The coalition can therefore gain executive control over most of decentralized Indonesia.

At the same time, the voting on Friday demonstrated the weak position of Jokowi's party in the legislature. This means Prabowo's allies can easily block Jokowi's plans, including changes he needs made to the state budget to fund his priority programs. 

Titi Anggraini from the Association for Elections and Democracy (Perludem) blamed President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Home Affairs Minister Gamawan Fauzi, as the bill was proposed by the government. They could have chosen to withdraw the bill instead of allowing the divided legislature to vote on it. 

Perludem will likely file a judicial review contesting the constitutionality of the law. – with additional reporting from Jet Damazo-Santos/Rappler.com