Sunday, January 22, 2012

Tough choices ahead on the road to democratic consolidation

Tough choices ahead on the road to democratic consolidation
Justin Snyder, Jakarta | Fri, 01/20/2012 10:19 AM
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As legislators mull over possible revisions to the 2009 Election Law, Indonesia enters an important phase of its democratic transition. It is perhaps too early to tell whether those in the House of Representatives (DPR) will have the courage required to press on with difficult reforms for the benefit of the country or whether they will promote instead their own narrowly defined self-interests.

Observers of Indonesian politics have long acknowledged the impressive levels of progress Indonesia has achieved since the beginning of its transition to democracy in 1998. Democratic transitions are not easy, nor do they happen overnight. Over the last 15 years separatist conflicts, communal violence, natural disasters and financial collapse, at one time or another, made the prospects of achieving a fully consolidated democratic system look increasingly remote. However, Indonesia has not simply survived, but it has emerged with a thriving economy and an encouraging set of democratic institutions and pluralistic democratic behavioral norms in place.

However, serious challenges remain on the road to democratic consolidation, which require the careful consideration among members of the DPR as they debate revisions to the 2009 election law.

Primarily, calls to return to a closed-list system, supported by as many as five of the nine parties currently in the DPR, would constitute a major setback in Indonesia’s democratic progress. By pushing for a closed-list system, parties are effectively advocating for restrictions on political competition, participation and the democratic aspirations of the public. Rather than simplifying political party financing, or making elections easier for the public, such a move would usher in a return of “money politics” practices and cronyism, through which a candidate could simply buy spots on a party list.

Strengthening campaign finance rules, including closing loopholes on donations to individual candidates and party structures, and providing adequate support for their strict enforcement should be a chief concern moving forward. The system of state funding was ineffective in controlling corruption, not to mention costly. Suggestions that the state should resume funding of parties would simply be throwing good money after bad.

Rather, legislators should work on developing better guidelines, and should provide the KPU with the material and political support it needs to do its job effectively. Furthermore, by making reports of campaign fund-raising and campaign spending available to the public, political parties and their respective candidates would drastically improve the transparency of Indonesia’s political system.

While political party factions in the DPR have been preoccupied with the legislative threshold, it remains a relatively small part of the electoral problems facing Indonesia today. True, it may be simpler to pass effective legislation with fewer parties and a legislative threshold of 4 percent may be effective in achieving that end; however, it seems that the DPR’s poor performance has had little to do with outright ideological differences over proposed policies, and had more to do with infighting over perceived privileges among coalition members.

The tendency to form “rainbow coalitions”, political alliances which encompass a broader spectrum of political parties than is necessary for legislative victory, has given rise to what some political scientists have described as “cartel politics”. This is a problem within the existing political culture, not the regulations that govern its operation, and to focus excessively on this issue serves as a major distraction from larger steps that could be taken to improve the quality of Indonesian elections.

As debate continues over proposed revisions, both in the DPR and in public at the warungs and coffee shops across Indonesia, it is important to distinguish between problems in the law and the “implementation” of that law.

First, elections are often criticized for being messy — which certainly can be true without effective guidance or impartial election dispute mechanisms, conflicts over the results can be traumatic. However, this should be taken as a “teachable moment”, and an opportunity to further refine the system, rather than abandon it or significantly hamper its operation. The General Elections Commission (KPU) must be given adequate support, in terms of manpower, financial resources and operational discretion, to effectively carry out its duties. Delays in the formulation of rules set in the DPR only trickle down to problems in implementation later on.

Second, elections are also criticized for their cost. True, they can be expensive, but they do not necessarily need to be. By synchronizing elections, and holding several ballots in a single day, local, provincial and national level governments can realize huge potential savings in printing, logistics, and management. Most people would agree that the cost of elections is far cheaper than the cost borne by the population without them.

Third, vote-buying, and allegations of electoral fraud need to be taken seriously, dealt with efficiently, impartially and with serious penalties. Indonesia actually has fairly good laws on the books in this regard; however, enforcement bodies often lack the political will or the political independence to pursue these cases in any serious manner. For democracy to function properly, a level playing field build on equal legal footing is crucial.

Policies designed to help develop the practice of electoral politics in Indonesia beyond simple popularity contests among celebrity candidates to issue-based campaigns with well-articulated policy suggestions should be supported, encouraged and accelerated.

A great deal of credit needs to be given to Indonesia, for its ability to move from the so-called “Festivals of Democracy” to establish genuine elections with meaningful participation by all parts of society as the new behavioral norm in such a short time.

Responsibility begins in the DPR, and their ability to hammer out an agreement on the 2012 election law by April, to avoid passing any procedural delays onto the KPU.

The writer is a former staff member of the National Endowment for Democracy, an American NGO which focuses on promoting democracy around the world. He now lives in Jakarta

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