Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo has been internationally praised as Indonesia's first elected president not to come from the political or military elite. But stories like his could be a thing of the past if the country's legislature passes a new bill revision to put an end to direct regional elections.
The push for the House of Representatives (DPR) to pass the bill before the end of this month has come from the 'Red-and-White' coalition that backed the bid of defeated presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto. Some commentators have labelled the move an act of revenge by Prabowo, who has still refused to publicly acknowledge defeat, even after his election appeal was rejected by Indonesia's Constitutional Court. But beyond being a matter of personal point-scoring, the proposed bill revision could have lasting and damaging effects on Indonesia's democracy, not least by potentially keeping out grassroots candidates like Jokowi.
Jokowi, a former furniture retailer, got his start in politics when he was elected mayor of the small town of Solo in Central Java. Initially a political unknown, his impressive performance in his first term as mayor led him to be re-elected with 90%of the vote. The extraordinary result prompted the party to ask him to run for governorship in Jakarta, and later for the presidency, which he won in July with 53% of the vote.
There are others like him across Indonesia, often referred to in the media as a 'new breed' of politicians, characterised by their non-elite backgrounds, authentic drive for political reform and clean and transparent approach to governance. Often included in this category are Bandung mayor Ridwan Kamil, a former architect and social activist promoting sustainable development in the West Java capital, and Tri Rismaharini, the first female mayor of the East Java capital of Surabaya, who is driving revitalisation of the city's green spaces (more controversially, she also shut down its red-light district earlier this year). These 'new breed' leaders have benefited from direct elections in the regions, introduced as part of the push for decentralisation following the fall of authoritarian president Suharto in 1998.
Unfortunately, decentralisation has not always resulted in cleaner governance. In many cases, the expensive business of regional campaigning has further entrenched corruption, with elected leaders finding themselves in debt not to their constituents but to the powerful political and business interests that supported their bid. This is the rationale being given by the 'Red-and-White' coalition (red and white being the colours of the Indonesian flag), which argues that abolishing direct elections will relieve candidates from the burden of funding a campaign, and free up those funds for developing the regions.
On the surface, it's a sensible argument, particularly given the great disparity in development and access to services between Indonesia's rural and urban areas. Except that it gives absolutely no guarantee that campaign funds will be redirected for the betterment of the people, and not simply constitute savings for the political elite. Furthermore, the proposal to hand authority back to regional legislative councils (DPRDs) to elect leaders, a system tried and tested under Suharto, narrows the opportunity for non-elites to enter the circles of power.
Most importantly, the revised bill would take away the people's right to elect their regional leaders and hold them accountable, which at present is the most potent force consolidating Indonesia's democracy. It is the popular backing of candidates like Jokowi, Ridwan and Risma that forces bigger political players like the PDI-P, or Prabowo's Gerindra party, to include them in political processes, making change possible.
'New breed' politicians, media and civil society groups are speaking out against the proposed revision to the regional elections bill. In a dramatic move, incoming Jakarta governor Basuki 'Ahok' Tjahaja Purnama has quit Gerindra in opposition to the party's backing of the revised bill. A handful of regional leaders from coalition parties have promised to do the same if the revised bill is passed.
Aside from Gerindra, the revised legislation is also backed by outgoing president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's Democratic Party, Suharto's former Golkar party and three Islamic parties, together making up 420 seats in the DPR. In opposition to the bill are PDI-P, the Islamic National Awakening Party (PKB), and the People's Conscience Party (Hanura), with 140 seats. Pressure is now on Yudhoyono to sway his party on the issue, especially considering that the party's current stance conflicts with that of the Home Ministry, which initially proposed the bill but has since changed its position. Yudhyono's party holds 150 of the coalition's seats, as well as the right to revoke the proposal.
A plenary meeting in the DPR will make a decision on the bill by the end of the month. No matter the outcome, the message is clear for Jokowi's incoming government: Prabowo's backers are not going to give the new president an easy ride.