Yudhoyono, Dems Put their Feet in the Ice Cream

Late the other night, Indonesia’s legislature dealt a significant blow to a decade-long process of local reform by eliminating the direct election of governors and district heads. Make no mistake: blame for this lies squarely on the shoulders of outgoing president Yudhoyono and his lame-duck Democrat Party faction.

The way to think about these reforms is that local governments will now be organized following a parliamentary rather than presidential system. Rather than separate elections for a district head and a district parliament, going forward the district head will be chosen by the district parliament, meaning a shift to indirect elections from direct elections. It should be noted that for most of Indonesia’s history, this is how district heads were chosen, but the 2004 reforms that implemented direct elections for local leaders was an important component of Indonesia’s democratic transition. These reforms also happen to be enormously popular: something like 80% of Indonesians support direct election of local executives, even if (as critics allege) they are costly, confusing, and often corrupt.

Now, I may be an exception among Indonesians and Indonesia-watchers, but I think that there is nothing procedurally undemocratic about either (1) a lame-duck parliament screwing up politics well into the future or (2) indirect elections, either at the local or national level. (My Whiggish views on inter-branch relations in U.S. politics are consistent with this view.) But like everyone else I know, I consider the return to indirect elections an enormous setback for reform, both locally and nationally.

The case at the local level is obvious: separate executive and legislative elections create more channels of vertical accountability. This works even if vertical accountability is very weak, as it probably is in most of Indonesia. Even if you simplistically believe that all local elections in Indonesia are no more than sites of managed competition among bosses, notables, and oligarchs, abolishing direct elections reduces that competition even further. Now, executives will be beholden to legislatures rather than to the electorate, and given what I believe to be unclear lines of policy accountability, this further reduces the executive’s incentive to win votes through policy. Again, even if you thought that that incentive was already weak, this weakens it much further.

The case at the national level is more speculative, but it’s more than just the sum of the negative consequences at local levels. It goes like this: direct local elections allow a different kind of politician to rise to prominence in Indonesia than would be possible under indirect elections. Indirect elections reward partisans—and in Indonesia this means something more like politicos given the weakness of national parties. Direct elections don’t automatically empower outsiders or reformists, but they are the single institutional precondition under which a non-partisan or non-politico can reach power. Those outsiders are the future of Indonesian politics. And that, of course, is why direct local elections are so immensely popular among Indonesians. Abolish direct elections of local executives, and you’ve cut off one channel through which reformists can enter the political arena by appealing to popular demands for reform. That’s not just bad for the regions, that’s bad for Indonesia.

** For an explanation of the title of this post, see here.