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Asia

Indonesia's rollback of election rights 'a setback for democracy'

Arguing that they're too costly, Indonesia's outgoing parliament has abolished direct elections for local officials, a move political expert Paul Rowland views as a major blow for democracy in the Southeast Asian nation.

Despite strong public opposition, Indonesia's House of Representatives voted 226 to 135 on September 26 to pass a bill giving parliamentarians the power to choose local leaders such as governors, district chiefs and mayors.

The move, which effectively takes away people's rights to directly choose local leaders, led to protests and criticism from many Indonesians, including president-elect Joko "Jokowi" Widodo - who started his career by winning a direct election as a mayor before winning the presidential election this July on promises of reviving the economic and improving the welfare system.

Paul Rowland

Rowland: 'The initial reaction to the passage of the legislation has been overwhelmingly negative'

Jokowi - who will be inaugurated on October 20 - slammed the decision as a "big step back" for democracy. Indonesia introduced direct elections for regional leaders in 2005. Parties that backed his election rival, ex-general Prabowo Subianto, and have a majority in parliament provided support for the bill, arguing that direct polls were too costly and prone to corruption.

Indonesia introduced direct elections for regional leaders in 2005, which where widely seen as an important step towards democracy after the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998.

Paul Rowland, a Jakarta-based independent political analyst, says in a DW interview that while direct elections certainly had problems, they produced local leaders who are more representative of and accountable to local electorates rather than the elites in Jakarta. Indirect elections, however, are known for being corrupt and subject to control by elites, he adds.

DW: Why did parliamentarians vote to scrap direct elections for local officials?

Paul Rowland: The reasons are varied and complex. Many legislators have felt for some time that direct elections for mayors and provincial governors in Indonesia are too expensive and cause corruption. Moving back to a system where local executives are chosen by the elected local and provincial councils has been mooted for some time, but the timing of the vote can be explained by more crass political motivations.

The coalition of parties that supported the losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto in recently held presidential elections are trying to demonstrate their power to the future president before these legislators leave office this week.

How big a blow is this new law for democracy in a country which introduced direct elections in 2005 after years of dictatorship?

It is indeed a setback for Indonesian democracy. While direct elections have certainly had problems, they have, on the whole, produced local leaders who are more representative of and accountable to local electorates rather than Jakarta-based elites. Moreover, the previous experiment with indirect elections such as those contained in the new law was not a success. The process was widely criticized for being corrupt and subject to control by elites.

How have Indonesians reacted to the move?

The initial reaction to the passage of the legislation from the media and the general public as expressed on Twitter and Facebook has been overwhelmingly negative. Several groups have announced their intention to challenge the law before the Constitutional Court. A recent poll showed that 80 percent of Indonesians want to directly elect their local and provincial leaders.

How may this affect Jokowi's reform agenda?

There are significant reforms that can be undertaken under the administrative powers of the president using existing legislation so, even with a hostile opposition coalition in the legislature, he can still move things forward significantly.

It is also notable that this vote happened under the watch of the outgoing legislature and many of those members will no longer be there when Jokowi takes office. Still, the Prabowo forces have taken this fight farther than could normally have been anticipated in Indonesian politics and they have demonstrated an ability to be a counterforce to reform.

Indonesia's presidential candidate Joko Jokowi Widodo smiles during an interview with Reuters in Jakarta July 19, 2014 (Photo: REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)

Rowland: 'This vote happened under the watch of the outgoing legislature and many of those members will no longer be there when Jokowi takes office'

Speaking in Washington, outgoing President Yudhoyono said he was "disappointed" that the vote had passed and that the government was also considering appealing. What is your view on this?

The truth is that the result might have been different had the president not been abroad. But his party has recently taken some different stands. The party backed the Prabowo Subianto and Hatta Rajasa ticket for the presidency, but President Yudhoyono did not endorse them.

I assume the party must have been under strong pressure from Prabowo not to vote against the bill. The result must be a bitter pill for the president to swallow as the law becomes a part of his legacy.

Paul Rowland is an independent political analyst based in Jakarta.