Election preview: Indonesia

We tend not to give much attention to legislative elections in presidential systems. It’s the president and their appointees who run the country and set its policy direction; the legislature has mostly just a negative influence, namely the ability to obstruct the president’s agenda if it’s controlled by a different party or parties (or sometimes just by recalcitrant members of the president’s own party).

Still, it would be very remiss not to look at today’s legislative election in Indonesia, in which the whole of both houses of the Indonesian parliament will be up for election, together with a variety of local and regional assemblies.

Much of the interest in this election comes from the fact that the presidential election is to be held just three months later, and the right to nominate a candidate for president is restricted to parties or coalitions that win at least 25% of the popular vote in today’s election, or at least 20% of the seats in the lower house, the People’s Representative Council. Current president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is retiring, as is required after two terms of office, and the contest to replace him is considered to be very open.

Indonesia has a rather chaotic-looking multi-party system, but the last election cycle, in 2009, was dominated by three parties – the only three who had candidates for president. They were Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party, the Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle of former president Megawati Sukarnoputri (PDI-P), and Golkar, the former ruling party under the dictatorship of General Suharto.

There is no prospect of one party winning a majority; last time, the above three parties had only about half the vote between them. The Democratic Party came out ahead with 148 of the 560 seats, followed by Golkar with 108 and PDI-P with 93. To those should probably be added, as a fourth force, the four “Islamist” parties, which between them won a little over 24% of the vote and 169 seats. If they were to work together they would clearly be a power to be reckoned with, although their collective total was well down from 2004.

As is usual with incumbents in new democracies, the Democratic Party is on the nose with voters due to a variety of scandals. PDI-P is regarded as the front-runner; a recent poll from, of all people, Roy Morgan Research, puts them on 37% to Golkar’s 17%, with the Democratic Party well back on 10%.

The hot favorite for the presidency is Jakarta governor Joko Widodo of PDI-P, commonly known as Jokowi, who is seen as clean and dynamic in contrast to the corrupt establishment. His main rival is expected to be General Prabowo Subianto, formerly of Golkar and now at the head of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), which placed third in the Morgan poll with 14%. Prabowo has multiple human rights issues in his background, particularly from the war in East Timor, and was also Suharto’s son-in-law.

Requirements for party registration have apparently been tightened, so this time there are 12 parties vying for parliamentary seats, plus three that are registered just in the autonomous province of Aceh. (Nine parties won seats last time, but Wikipedia lists vote totals for another 29, plus more in Aceh.) Seats are allocated proportionally (on a highest remainder system) in each of 82 electoral districts, subject to a minimum threshold of 3.5% of the national vote.

Results are not expected for some time, but when they appear it will probably be at the General Elections Commission website.

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