In this seminar, Dr Ian Douglas Wilson discussed the current phenomenon of interim regional leaders in Indonesia, where simultaneous local elections will be held nationwide in November 2024, but many of the regional leaders will end their terms as early as mid-2022 and be replaced by interim appointees.
INDONESIA STUDIES PROGRAMME SEMINAR
Monday, 14 November 2022 – Gearing up to Indonesia’s 2024 elections, changes in the regional election system have created the phenomenon of interim leaders in the country. Dr Ian Douglas Wilson spoke in the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’s hybrid seminar on “Democracy Delayed? Interim Regional leaders and Indonesia’s 2024 Elections.” Dr Wilson is currently a Visiting Fellow with ISEAS and Senior Lecturer at Murdoch University, Australia. Moderating this session was Ms Julia Lau, Senior Fellow and Co-Coordinator of the Indonesia Studies Programme at ISEAS.
Dr Wilson highlighted the recent phenomenon of interim leaders in Indonesia that emerged due to the ‘bundling’ of all regional elections. As stipulated under Article 201 of a 2016 Law (UU No.1 2016), all regional elections will be held in November 2024, nine months after the 2024 federal legislative and presidential elections. Consequently, many elected regional leaders will finish their terms in the months or even years before voting day. He indicated that there would be at least a total of 100 leaders and 169 leaders at the regency and provincial levels that would finish their terms in 2022 and 2023, respectively.
Dr Wilson elaborated that the supporters of the 2016 law argued that cost and logistics were the main reasons for bundling all the elections. Proponents argued that this will ‘reset’ Indonesia’s electoral system to a single electoral period, and that this would minimise tension or potential conflict from electoral campaigns. More recently, the notion that this would allow the country more time for post-pandemic recovery has also emerged. However, Dr Wilson saw this as an indication of democratic deficiency, as interim leaders were being appointed to be placeholders. These interim appointment holders, some of whom would be in office for long periods, have not been elected and hence lack the public’s mandate to govern.
Dr Wilson then explained the mechanism by which interim leaders are appointed. Indonesia’s Constitutional Court had recently concluded that the process could still be democratic even if such appointees were not directly elected. The law, however, does not stipulate a clear process for appointing these interim leaders. The Ministry of Home Affairs administers the selection process, supposedly in consultation with the people’s regional representatives (i.e., the DPRD) and ‘influential’ locals. In practice, however, the Ministry had limited public consultation, with President Joko Widodo apparently approving the final choice of interim leader in some cases, such as for Jakarta.
Dr Wilson observed that many of the interim leaders had a military and security background, such as in Aceh and Banten, and noted there were also some with strong links to the Ministry of Home Affairs and President Widodo.
Some civil society groups and others have reacted strongly against this phenomenon. However, Dr Wilson shared that for some grassroots groups and the public, many people were still not aware that some of their elected regional and local leaders will end their terms prior to 2024. The Constitutional Court has dismissed specific requests to review and challenge the 2016 Law. Other cases and challenges from coalitions of civil society organisations and the Ombudsman are pending. Dr Wilson raised a concern about whether the current trend of interim appointments might threaten the return of dwifungsi (dual function) of the military in the post-reformasi era.
Focusing on the current Jakarta interim leadership, Dr Wilson spotlighted Heru Budi Hartono, whom Widodo appointed as interim Jakarta governor. Hartono replaced former governor Anies Baswedan, whose term ended in October 2022. Hartono is seen to be close to Widodo, as well as to Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (better known as “Ahok”), and has links to the Indonesian Party of Struggle (PDI-P). In Dr Wilson’s view, Hartono’s interim governorship has instigated policy shifts that hark back to the policies of Widodo’s and Ahok’s gubernatorial administrations. For instance, Hartono’s policies on the controversial ‘normalisation’ approach towards Jakarta’s rivers and housing policies echoed those of Ahok’s and raised serious concerns about the interim administration’s potential impact on the communities that would be affected by forcible evictions. Reflecting on the Jakarta case, Dr Wilson argued that the interim appointments could be strategic for the central government gearing up for the 2024 national elections, especially if interim leaders used their positions – again without actual mandates from the voting public – to support certain candidates.
Wrapping up, Dr Wilson argued that interim appointments add to the list of potential threats against Indonesia’s system of direct and democratic elections. Emphasising that this was not a recent phenomenon, he reminded the audience of a previous attempt to stymie local elections led by Prabowo Subianto in 2014 (that was eventually blocked by executive action from then president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono), sustained support for the suggestion to abolish direct elections from groups like Nahdlatul Ulama, and continued discourse from the home affairs ministry and certain elite individuals questioning the relevance of direct local elections.
Last, Dr Wilson noted that present plans for Indonesia’s new capital, Nusantara, neither provided for direct local elections nor a regional parliament to represent the citizens of the new capital city. Dr Wilson also questioned Home Affairs Minister Tito Karnavian’s proposed concept of “asymmetrical democracy” as an alternative to direct regional election. Dr Wilson criticised the notion behind this concept that Karnavian has been promoting, particularly the idea that only educated people could vote while others would be denied such basic political rights.
The hybrid seminar drew a total of 52 participants, both in-person and online. The key takeaway from this session was that Indonesia’s democracy was relatively young, especially the direct election scheme where a political process is expected to facilitate mandates. Bundling the elections might have vast implications, including the relations between regional leaders and their constituents, the potential return of dwifungsi, and complex voting processes. Hence, attempts to make it an indirect election might be backsliding of Indonesia’s democracy. Finally, the panel discussed some important issues to track, including legal challenges for regional direct elections as the law is supposed to be the defender of democracy.