Ash Center: Prospects for Electoral Reform in Indonesia

January 14, 2011
Ash Center: Prospects for Electoral Reform in Indonesia

By Jessica Engelman

The Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University has issued a report, “From Reformasi to Institutional Transformation: A Strategic Assessment of Indonesia’s Prospects for Growth, Equity, and Democratic Governance.” One of the first overall analyses of Indonesia’s governance and socioeconomic climate, the report reflects upon the country’s successes as a new, 10-year-old democracy and argues that the country must go through a dramatic institutional transformation to compete in the global economy going forward. A delegation led by Center Director Anthony Saich presented the findings of the report to several key constituencies in Indonesia.

In the report, electoral reform emerges as a key recommendation. Political corruption is so widespread in Indonesia that it is hampering the country’s potential for economic growth and its efforts to join in the global economy. Permitting processes are so laden with red tape imposed by politicians that many medium and small companies cannot survive. As the report states, “Building a more competitive economy requires the creation of a more responsive and open political system that is geared less to gate-keeping and protecting “insiders” and more to a reconstructed democratic citizenship.” Indeed, a 2005 World Values Survey notes that over 60 percent of Indonesians had little to no confidence in their country’s governing institutions including the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat (DPR), the country’s parliament. But, calls to end corruption will not be sufficient. There must be incentives for politicians to put the public’s welfare first. Developing these incentives is key to Indonesia’s future. The most powerful incentives for any politician are electoral in nature, as their paramount concern is being elected. Therefore, if you “change the rules governing how politicians are elected to office, you can change their behavior.”

However, as Indonesia examines possible electoral reform strategies, it has focused more on the relative complexity of the various systems it employs rather than using reform to influence politicians’ behavior. Indeed, the simplest system may not be the best. Indonesia is currently considering a move to a single member district (SMD) system, which would divide the country into 560 electoral constituencies, each with a single representative in the DPR. While this might make representatives more responsive to their constituents, it also encourages members to subvert national goals in favor of making promises that appeal to the local populace. And, because it requires substantial amounts of money for any party to sponsor 560 candidates for office, the number of parties in contention will diminish. This can help to curb corruption, but it also means less diversity in the DPR. This is especially troubling in a country as diverse as Indonesia. The number of parties is further reduced by the requirement that a party must have a majority in a given district to win a seat. With proportional representation, a party that wins a small percentage of the vote would still get that percentage of seats. Not so with the SMD system.

However, the current open list system is also not a viable option. With the open list system, voters may vote for an individual candidate in a party’s list, and not the whole list. While the intention behind such a system is to break the power hold of party leaders who placed their cronies at the top of closed lists, this system has had some unwanted effects. Because candidates of the same party are now forced to run against each other, political parties are weakened and the role of money in elections has been greatly magnified, spurring corruption. The open list system has also made vote tabulation much more complex.

In light of the benefits and drawback of these electoral systems, the report’s authors suggest adopting a mixed system, “in which some portion of the legislature is elected according to closed-list proportional representation under Indonesia’s current 77 multi-member districts; with the rest of the parliament elected through 560 single member districts.” This would ensure that representatives elected under the SMD would be accountable to their constituents while the closed list aspect would help preserve a role for political parties and would encourage them to promote national agendas.

Finally, the report recommends that whatever electoral system is chosen, that it should apply to all elections in the country. The current array of electoral systems used in Indonesia creates inequity and confusion in the electoral process.

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Led by Anthony Saich, this report was authored by David Dapice, Tarek Masoud, Dwight Perkins, Jonathan Pincus, Jay Rosengard, Thomas Vallely, Ben Wilkinson, and Jeffrey Williams.