What Indonesia’s Regional Election Bill means for ASEAN?

On the morning of Friday, September 26, Indonesians woke up to the shocking news that their very right to choose their own mayors, regents and governors via direct elections had in effect been stolen from them.

In a massive setback for the country’s ongoing democratization journey, the ironically-named People’s Representative Council (DPR) decided to make local leaders appointed by and therefore accountable to regional legislative councils instead.

While the immediate impact of the Regional Election Bill’s passage will be felt hardest by the Indonesian people whose democratic rights have now been taken away, the DPR’s decision undoubtedly has far wider implications on the ASEAN region itself. Following the country’s Reformasi of 1998 – and especially during the Yudhoyono Years – Indonesia has prominently positioned itself as a democratic role-model to the world and has consistently pushed its democratic agenda on to the ASEAN region. Jakarta’s championing of the Bali Concord II, its support for Myanmar’s democratization and its annual hosting of the Bali Democracy Forum are demonstrative of this.

Significantly, Indonesia’s political experiment with decentralization and directly-elected local leaders has drawn much interest and admiration from fellow ASEAN member-states. For example, Prof. Peter Warr recently wrote an article in the East Asia Forum (2014, September 22) entitled, ‘Why Thailand Must Decentralise?’ in which Indonesia was specifically highlighted as a case study and was described as “the success story of Southeast Asia.” Meanwhile, Stanley Weiss in The Huffington Post (2014, March 8) argued that Indonesia’s “experience setting up a decentralized state contains valuable lessons for Myanmar.”

Although the DPR’s decision does not remove the decentralization system, it nonetheless weakens it. Gone is the possibility of future capable leaders, responsible to their constituents, and responsive to the people’s concerns in decentralized regions. It should not be forgotten that it was through this directly-elected system that popular reformists emerged in the nation’s consciousness. These include Bandung’s Mayor Ridwan Kamil, Surabaya’s Mayor Tri Rismaharaini and most notably Joko Widodo who rose from Mayor of Solo, Governor of Jakarta and now President-elect of the Republic of Indonesia.

It is this new breed of local politicians, marked by their achievements in office and familiarity with the people that have inspired others in the ASEAN region, frustrated with the status quo and the continued rule of ineffective, corrupt and distant political elites. For example, an article in Malaysia’s Free Malaysia Today (2013, February 20) was entitled, ‘Wanted Badly: A Malaysian Jokowi’ while Myanmar’s Irrawaddy (2014, July 24) ran a piece, ‘For Burmese, Little Hope for a Jokowi of Their Own.’ Thus, with the scrapping of direct elections for local leaders, pro-democracy activists in the ASEAN region may have to look outside of Indonesia for inspiration, support and encouragement.

Worryingly, the DPR’s decision comes at a time in which the ASEAN region is witnessing what some analysts call a democratic reversal. Most illustrative is the military coup in Thailand. In addition, Associate Prof. Thitinan Pongsudhirak in the Bangkok Post (2014, July 25) notes “Cambodia, Malaysia and Myanmar have exhibited signs of regression” whilst Zachary Keck in The Diplomat (2014, May 29) adds that more authoritarian ASEAN states such as Brunei Darussalam, Lao PDR and Vietnam “have halted all reforms and have in some instances also begun rolling back previous reforms.” Arguably, the DPR’s decision completes this democratic reversal in the ASEAN region, undermining any future efforts by Indonesia to promote its democratic agenda onto its neighbors, and leaving Southeast Asia with few if any democratic bulwarks.

Reacting to the DPR’s decision to pass the regional election bill, Indonesians were quick to turn to social media to voice their anger at the country’s democratic setback. “#RIPDemocracy” became a trending topic in Twitter with many mourning a sad day for Indonesia. However, it is clear that Friday, September 26 was not only a sad day for Indonesia but also for the ASEAN region as a whole.

Written by : A. Ibrahim Almutaqqi, The Habibie Center

Published in The Diplomat, 22 October 2014

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