Indonesia’s Elections: More democratic than those in the United States?

At only about 64 years independent—65 at the end of December—and following three and a half centuries of Dutch colonization, this notion may come as a surprise to those of us living in the “Land of the Free,” especially given that Indonesia’s General Suharto ruled a fairly autocratic regime until his resignation in mid-1998.

Before getting into the elections, it’s important to acknowledge that Indonesia does, in fact, have a myriad of problems it will need to overcome in the next few decades; problems which the United States has had 238 years to overcome since its independence from the British.

For one, Indonesia will have to tackle a massive income gap, especially in Jakarta.  Not only has the wealthy elite of Indonesia accrued a lot of money, but has also in the past received improved infrastructure that poorer areas have restricted access to, like water supply.  As such, inequalities have led to violent conflict in Indonesia in decades past, oftentimes along ethnic or political lines.

Indonesia also has an unfavorable environmental record.  Just last summer there was public outcry over forest burning to make charcoal, which continues today.  The fumes were drifting into Singapore and led to health problems for those breathing in the ash. The World Wildlife Foundation is also fearful that deforestation and overfishing are having detrimental effects on the environment mainly due to consumption abroad.

Electoral Institutions, the Key to Indonesian Democracy

The Indonesian representative body is the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR), which has the authority to amend the constitution, formalize state policy, and inaugurate or impeach the President of Indonesia.  Much like the United States’ Congress, this body is divided into two houses: the People’s Representative Council (DPR) and the Regional Representative Council (DPD).  The DPR handles national affairs and serves as a check on the executive branch of the Indonesian government while the DPD handles regional issues throughout the nation (which is rather useful given that Indonesia is made up of thousands of islands totaling over 735,000 square miles of territory).

Representatives are elected based on a proportional representation (PR) system from a party vote.  This past year, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the main opposition party in Indonesia, won the country’s legislative election with 18.9 percent of the vote.  Since this was not enough to support a candidate on their own, a coalition was formed with the National Democrat party (NasDem) to give PDI-P’s candidate the required threshold of support of 25 percent.  The candidate supported by this party is former Jakarta governor Joko Widodo, widely known as “Jokowi” by Indonesians.

Jokowi’s competition for President of Indonesia is a man by the name of Prabowo Subianto, a former army general.  Subianto leads the Greater Indonesia Movement Party (Gerinda), and was once head of Suharto’s Special Forces.

Both candidates have massively different backstories: Jokowi is the son of a carpenter and has worked his way to power as leader of Indonesia’s most popular city, while Subianto is a former general riding a wave of nationalism in Indonesia.  Jokowi has been criticized for being a young candidate and, by an unnamed account, “too skinny,” whereas Subianto has had to deal with a human rights background marred with controversy during his time as Chief of the Special Forces.  One supports streamlined diplomacy over military engagement, while the other advocates for military might.  One candidate looks to improve the financial system through support of small businesses, while the other wishes to encourage a stronger domestic handle on Indonesia’s economy.

The candidates are different on a number of levels, just like any fair election.  Where Indonesia shines is the institutions of “electoralism” that have been established since independence and democratic transition.  Not only is the outgoing president just that – outgoing – but also the presidential election being held contains two competitive candidates.  Not only is there infrastructure to properly conduct elections, but also the PR system ensures that the candidates nominated by coalitions are candidates with a broad swathe of support across Indonesia.

Turnout for the presidential election was spectacular.  In Singapore alone, 30,000 Indonesian ex-pats cast their votes at the embassy.  While national voter turnout data is still being recorded, it is very likely turnout will be above that ofIndonesia’s 2004 presidential elections (68.51%) and 2009 legislative elections (70.99%).  There are no major bars to voting in Indonesia, at least not like those in the US, so participation is naturally high.  That the elections are a point of pride for Indonesian identity and the way towards progress only serves to emphasize this further.  30% of these votes will be cast by first time voters, too.  In America’s most recent election (2012), voter turnout was 57.5% just among those eligible.  The high turnout in Indonesia was even hailed by the White House as underscoring Indonesia as a maturing democracy.

Fears Come to Light–‘secret Christians’, double-Dutch quick counts, and religious intolerance

No doubt there have been major problems along the way.  Not only have the campaigns been vicious, but they have also included major personal attacks and accusations that one candidate is a closet Christian or secret Chinese national.

There are also the events following the “quick counts” in the last two weeks.  Both candidates have declared victory.  Final results are set to come out on the 22nd of July, but supporters of both candidates have rallied and celebrated in the streets, sometimes bringing the atmosphere to a level of tenseness that borders on dangerous.  Many expect that Widodo will ultimately be declared victorious, including CSIS Indonesia and the Economist, at least initially.

Ballots are currently being counted, and “damaged ballots” are leading to a few recounts throughout Indonesia, proving that the electoral institutions are serious about assessing real vote counts.

Jokowi has made the mistake of “taking the high road” and has stuck to his promises of not increasing tensions over the quick counts and has not paid observers at every polling station like Prabowo.  Jokowi should, of course, be clean but cannot be taken for a fool.  Meanwhile, Prabowo is suing US journalist Allan Nairn for defamation following the publication of a series of articles stemming from an off-the-record interview in 2001.

Nonetheless, prospects are looking better than worse for Indonesia; 90% of the population is Muslim and Indonesia will continue to set the example of the compatibility of democracy and Islam.  Major strides have been made since the fall of Suharto and now, moderate Islam rules the nation.  The government has come down hard on militant extremism and Al-Qaeda has all but disappeared from Indonesia.

Looking Ahead: Is Indonesia more democratic than the United States?

Right now, probably not.  Indonesia is on a majorly upward trajectory, and will become at least as democratic as the United States is now, in a decade or so.  There have been issues under President Yudhoyono regarding religious intolerance against Shi’a and Christian Indonesians.  Widodo, however, sees broad support from Christians and other minority groups in Indonesia, which could result in a major step forward in this regard.

The institutions of Indonesia’s elections are nearly on par with their American counterparts, there are fewer barriers to voting, and the PR system is much better than America’s single-member districts, but Indonesia’s quick counts have thrown a wrench into the process.  Plus, since Indonesia’s elections don’t have the same moneyed effect that America’s do, there truly is reason for optimism in the next age of Indonesia’s democracy.


Image Source: Financial Times/AFP

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