INDONESIA’S next president, once he is elected in July, will have to corral a fractious legislature as his predecessor did. The country faces mounting economic and social pressures, and the persistence of complex coalition politics will not help the future administration’s efforts at reform. But Indonesia’s April 9 legislative elections showed that the country’s politics remain relatively familiar and stable, which, historically speaking, cannot be taken for granted.
The legislative elections ensured that the People’s Representative Council would continue to be composed of rocky coalitions of relatively small parties, each pursuing a greater share of power, as has been the case since the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998. The final results will become available May 9, but preliminary counts show a dramatic drop in votes for the incumbent Democratic Party. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had given the party its strength in the 2009 elections, and it was widely expected to falter with the end of his second and final term, especially amid widespread dissatisfaction over the economy and his failure to cut back on flagrant corruption.
Other parties picked up the Democratic Party’s slack. In particular, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, known by its Indonesian abbreviation, PDI-P, gained more than five percentage points over 2009, coming in at just under 20 percent. PDI-P has roots in the Suharto era — its main figure, Megawati Sukarnoputri, was the daughter of the country’s first president, Sukarno, and her movement emerged out of the official opposition party tolerated by Suharto. In the latest election, PDI-P drew upon this institutional strength but also benefited from the surging p opularity of Jakarta Gov. Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, who has crafted an image as a corruption-free outsider and reformer.
Golkar, the official party under Suharto, with its base of power in the country’s sprawling bureaucracy, came in second place, retaining its 2009 position and defying the impression stemming from previous losses that it had entered terminal decline.
Broadly speaking, the election suggests that Indonesia’s voters have asked for a change in government but have not chosen to overthrow the political establishment. The share of votes going to other, post-Suharto parties fell slightly for the first time since 1997 on the back of PDI-P’s bump. The overall landscape of the major parties looks somewhat similar to 2004, though now with PDI-P in the lead and not Golkar. The 2009-14 period, in which the Democratic Party surged ahead and all the minor parties lost votes, now appears to have been a passing phase, with the Democrats having fallen back to their original place in 2004. The Islamist parties have recovered at least somewhat from the past five years’ weakness, regaining their traditional position of roughly 30 percent of votes when taken as a whole.
However, new parties are emerging to challenge the establishment. The PDI-P is already looking to form a partnership with Nasdem, an upstart party that gained more than 6 percent of the vote partly because of the popularity of leader Suryah Paloh, a former top Golkar member and head of a media empire. Another sign of political change comes from the Great Indonesia Movement Party, or Gerindra, which came in third place with around 12 percent of the vote, a big gain for a party that received only 4 percent in 2009. The party’s leader, Prabowo Subianto will be a presidential contender. A controversial former leader of the army’s special forces, the boost in votes points to his personal popularity, support among the military and the fact that past human rights violations have not been able to derail him. This hints at the growth of Suharto-era nostalgia and accompanying desire for a strongman leader with a military background. Gerindra has now risen above the minor parties to take a share of the vote comparable to the major parties, a fact that will give the party momentum going forward. Gerindra’s role, whether as opposition or coalition partner, will therefore be important to watch in the next five years.
Since the April 9 election, commentators have lamented the fact that the leading party will still need to form a “rainbow coalition” with two or three other parties in order to rule. The combined troubles of coalition management and opposition will make it difficult to drive its policy agenda. But in actuality the April elections were never going to give a single party a preponderance of power in the lower house. They only raised the possibility that one party, the PDI-P, would cross the legislative threshold (25 percent of the popular vote, 20 percent of the legislature), enabling it to choose both its presidential and vice presidential candidates for July’s elections and hold greater sway over Cabinet choices. Yet the outgoing Democratic Party crossed that threshold in 2009, and it did not prevent Yudhoyono’s second-term agenda from getting bogged down in multipolar partisan politics.
Because of this, the talk of Jokowi’s popularity launching the PDI-P into a position of such great parliamentary strength that it would create a new era of decisiveness in Indonesian government was overblown. Jokowi is a new name in Indonesian politics and remains the likeliest candidate to win the July presidential election, but his party is institutional. His popularity was overrated in its ability to affect local elections, and the PDI-P has a long history, with inherited limitations as well as institutional strengths. In fact, while the PDI-P saw a substantial uptick from the previous election, it has come nowhere close to regaining the fleeting popularity it enjoyed in the immediate aftermath of Suharto’s downfall.
The status quo
The biggest takeaway from the legislative election is that despite dumping the incumbent party and widespread desire for change, the vote reasserted the status quo of Indonesian politics — fragmentation, coalition politics among mostly familiar parties and gradual change. The country is defined by the divergence of interests between its disparate regions, ethnicities and institutions. Suharto managed to form a preponderant power by combining the military, bureaucracy and state corporations under his control and was able to achieve some degree of national unity and impose centralizing policies rapidly through the late 1960s-80s. But what the regime gained in chain of command it lost in flexible, organic development — eventually the misallocation of resources and regime-centric conception of national interest resulted in economic collapse and revolution.
After Suharto’s downfall in 1998, democratic politics gave rise to numerous parties more reflective of the country’s divergent interests. The multiplicity of parties required leaders to form coalitions to command a legislative majority and pursue their agenda. Under Yudhoyono’s leadership from 2004 to 2014, the country found a sort of equilibrium between the near-disintegration of the late 1990s and early 2000s and the reassertion of central control. Political tensions stabilized and the economy grew rapidly, suggesting a winning formula for a new Indonesia. Throughout the second term, however, global economic change has taken its toll on the country, and his administration has been perceived as getting bogged down in corruption, politicking and compromise. This stagnation occurred despite Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party having won a larger share of the legislature than the incoming PDI-P has now done.
The 2014 legislative elections promise a high degree of contention in the legislature, party differences in the Cabinet and constant struggles for coalition discipline in the face of both internal disagreement and opposition. The political process will be as difficult for the incoming leader as it was for Yudhoyono. While Jokowi remains the leading contender for the presidential elections in July, the messy business of coalition formation may begin to blur his image as a reformer who is above “politics as usual.” He also faces the combined attacks of his rivals while struggling with the divisions within his party between his supporters and party stalwarts.
Amid the inter-party and inter-coalition struggle, the incoming government faces an increasingly difficult social, economic and strategic terrain. A rapidly growing population is increasing employment and wage pressures. Infrastructural deficiencies and under-developed industry still require policies that encourage investment while reducing corruption, waste and overregulation. The continuing need for foreign investment remains a source of tension, with the ban on raw minerals exports only the most recent and flagrant example of frictions between the government and foreign interests. Regional territorial and sovereignty tensions, a more assertive China and Japan, heightened distrust of Australia and a lack of clarity about the US role in the region all complicate Indonesia’s foreign and defense policies.
While voters are dissatisfied enough to abandon the former ruling party, they have not flocked in great numbers to any single alternative, leaving a great deal of gridlock and partisan contention for the future. Nevertheless, the bigger picture may prove positive for Indonesia. The number of parties seeking seats in the legislature has been falling — from 48 in 1999 to 12 in 2014 — and this gradual consolidation of parties will likely continue, eventually streamlining the country’s politics to some extent. Moreover, today’s parties seem to move toward the mainstream and vie for the same turf rather than move toward the fringe in pursuit of ideological purity. These trends, combined with the relative continuity of the major political parties and gradual rather than revolutionary introduction of new parties, are all positive for a country with extreme regional and demographic disparities that wishes to avoid the ill effects of the extreme centralism of the past.
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