The twists and turns continue in Indonesia's dramatic election year. In the most recent plot turn, the coalition that backed Prabowo Subianto's losing bid for president pushed through a bill to end almost a decade of direct elections for regional heads, which were seen by many as a flawed yet vital element of the nation's democratic transition. It was an unexpected turn of events after a year that saw several alleged threats to democracy rise and then disappear, either by public consensus or competent handling by Indonesia's democratic institutions.
The narrative so far had been one of hope — against smear campaigns, party politics, contested election results and threats of orchestrated chaos. Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo looks set to be safely installed as Indonesia's first president to come from a non-elite background, and there seemed to be no obstacles to Jokowi introducing reforms to further consolidate democracy.
But the passing of the regional elections bill highlights a major obstacle that Jokowi has failed to overcome, and that is building a strong enough coalition in the House of Representatives (DPR) to affect change.
While Prabowo built a bulky and indiscriminate coalition, Jokowi was more selective and made no promises of shared political spoils for his allies. Though admirable in intention, the result has been that Jokowi's lean Gotong Royong ('Cooperative') coalition holds almost no weight against Prabowo's Merah-Putih ('Red and White') coalition in the legislature, a point bluntly made by the passing of a bill that scrapped the mechanism by which Jokowi himself had risen to national prominence.
The only hope for stopping the bill lay with departing president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his Democratic Party, which currently holds more seats as a single party than the three parties in Jokowi's coalition combined. Parties backing Jokowi and opposing the bill held 139 seats against the 273 held by Prabowo's coalition. The 148 seats held by the Democratic Party could have swung the vote to maintain the direct election of regional heads by the people, rather than returning the responsibility to regional legislative councils, as in the era of authoritarian president Suharto.
Under public pressure, Yudhoyono openly declared support for maintaining direct elections. But on voting day, while the president was on an overseas farewell tour to close his ten-year term, his party simply refused to vote on the bill. With its list of ten objections to the current state of regional elections deemed to have been insufficiently addressed by the legislature, the party declared neutrality on the issue and walked out, leaving the bill to pass.
Over the weekend of 27-28 September, #ShameOnYouSBY (referring to the president by his initials) became the number one worldwide trending topic on Twitter, pushed by the outraged netizens of the world's biggest Twitter nation, Indonesia. The hashtag later mysteriously disappeared, a matter Twitter has declined to publicly address, but was soon replaced by the acrostic #ShamedByYou. Another odd development on Twitter was the dissemination of a bizarre infographic that accused me and the Lowy Institute, among other foreign observers, of being disappointed by the passing of the bill because it would thwart our plans to influence Indonesian politics with money and 'false tributes' (I'm going to need a few million more followers and dollars to pursue this alleged ambition).
Yudhoyono has since pledged to attempt to overturn the bill with a government regulation in lieu of law (Perppu). This regulation would still need to be accepted by the incoming members of the House of Representatives, who will replace the current formation that passed the bill. If that fails to happen and the end of direct regional elections is entrenched, then there are threats that Prabowo's coalition may also move on direct presidential elections, further concentrating the distribution of power in the hands of the elite.
The end of direct elections does not automatically spell an end for democracy. But in the Indonesian context, the end of direct regional elections means the end of a functioning mechanism that was letting reformist non-elites take power. Any way you look at it, that's a setback for democracy that the incoming government will be tasked with trying to undo.