A vote for Prabowo could be Indonesia’s last

Prabowo Subianto.
09 July 2014
Prabowo Subianto.

Presidential candidate is set on rolling back direct elections, argue Marcus Mieztner and Edward Aspinall.

On 28 June during a campaign rally at Jakarta’s Taman Ismail Marzuki cultural centre, Indonesian presidential hopeful Prabowo Subianto said something extraordinary. 

While calling for the people’s vote on 9 July, he also outlined his plans to strip them of their right to vote in direct elections. In other words, he is seeking to dismantle the very system through which he seeks power.

At the rally Prabowo said Indonesia’s political system is unduly influenced by Western values. For him, direct elections (presumably both at the national and local level) were not in line with Indonesian culture, but had been adopted and perpetuated like a bad habit (he mentioned smoking as an example).

What was needed, he continued, was a new consensus among Indonesia’s key social and political groups. He left open what this new political consensus should or could look like, but given his trenchant criticism of direct elections, it is fair to assume that Prabowo would try to work towards an alternative system in which top executive leaders are indirectly rather than popularly elected.

In fact, Prabowo had already laid out his plans for a radical restructuring of the political landscape many months ago. His Gerindra Party’s election manifesto alleges that the amended constitution that been in place since 2002 has been a failure. It proposed a return to Indonesia’s original 1945 constitution. 

This very brief constitution, written hurriedly in the weeks prior to the declaration of independence, is an autocrat’s dream: it leaves fundamental issues unregulated, allowing presidents to tailor the political system to their tastes and preferences. It served both Sukarno and Suharto well in creating their respective authoritarian regimes between 1959 and 1998.

Most importantly, the 1945 constitution stipulates that the president is not directly elected by the people but by the MPR (People’s Consultative Assembly). In turn, the exact composition of the MPR is left unregulated – a loophole that allowed Suharto to appoint most of the delegates himself. The president was elected for the last time by the MPR in 1999, after which fresh constitutional amendments led to the first direct presidential polls in 2004.

Prabowo’s words at Taman Ismail Marzuki were simply an explicit statement of what is already implicit in Gerindra’s demand for a return to the original 1945 constitution: annulling all post-1998 amendments would automatically revoke direct elections and return presidential “elections” to the MPR.

On 30 June and in the wake of Taman Ismail Marzuki, ANU academic Ross Tapsell had the chance to ask Prabowo directly about his intentions, at an event largely attended by foreign diplomats and journalists and held entirely in English.

In what has now become Prabowo’s standard approach to such questions, he expressed dismay at the media for portraying him as non-democratic, and generally described himself as “a democrat.” But, far from denying that he wanted to get rid of direct elections, he delivered more justifications for this idea.

At Taman Ismail Marzuki, Prabowo had focused on how direct elections violated the values of “our ancestors”; in front of his foreign audience, he attacked these elections as being too expensive and as breeding corruption. “Our version of democracy is very expensive,” he said, and he proposed to search for ways “to carry out democracy that is consistent with our economic means.”

This has been the argument advanced by bureaucrats in the Ministry of Home Affairs, who have called for the return of local executive elections to the legislature for many years. Clearly, Prabowo is tapping into a widespread sentiment about high-costs elections to prepare the ground for a major revamp of the electoral system. He is intent on building a low-cost political system that fulfills the minimum requirements of democracy but that avoids direct elections of heads of executive governments (there would still be legislative elections).

Prabowo’s rhetoric evokes memories of Suharto’s Pancasila Democracy – a system that upheld elections as a source of legitimacy but reduced them to a five-yearly, predictable ritual.

But in his quest to restore the political framework that was practiced under the original 1945 constitution, Prabowo also made references to the Westminster systems of Western Europe: “He who wins the legislative election, will, you can get majority rule in parliament, you are automatically chief of the executive. In our opinion it could be cheaper.”

However, it would be naive to interpret Prabowo’s sudden reference to the Westminster system as an invitation to society to discuss Indonesia’s possible shift to a parliamentary system. Nothing in Prabowo’s previous statements, speeches or published platforms suggest that he has any sympathy for parliamentary democracy. Instead, Gerindra’s manifesto has called for the reestablishment of a “pure presidential system,” which it claims has been watered down by the post-1998 constitutional amendments.

Prabowo’s speeches during the campaign have also focused on the need to restore presidential authority and provide “decisive leadership.” The idea of introducing a Westminster democracy, in which prime ministers depend on having a majority in their unruly party rooms, could therefore not be further from what Prabowo has publicly announced as his main political goal – a strong, centralised presidential system.

There can be little doubt that Prabowo wants to abolish direct elections for the presidency, as well as at the regional level. Does it matter? After all, as Prabowo says, some countries elect their heads of government indirectly through parliament (Australia is one such country). Doesn’t Prabowo’s proposal suggest simply a reformulation of Indonesian democracy rather than a diminution of it?

There are reasons to be pessimistic on this score. The history of the Suharto regime itself is an obvious reminder of how readily elections by the MPR can be manipulated, especially in the context of a constitution that places almost no constraints on the executive. The first years of Indonesia’s reformasi period, when local government heads were elected by local parliaments, also show us that indirect elections are more open to manipulation and graft than direct elections.

We can expect the same at the national level. A powerful and determined president will find it much easier to manipulate the few hundred MPR members to secure re-election than to manipulate the entire population in an open poll. He would be able to use any number of measures to entice or bully MPR members to support his re-election: co-opting party leaders by offering them ministerial posts or other deals, buying off parties by providing them with patronage resources, bribing individual MPs with corrupt payments, threatening opponents with prosecution for corruption or other misdemeanours, and so on.

Indirect elections through the MPR offer a far more promising path to permanent entrenchment in power. And in that context it is worth remembering one other provision that will be lost should Indonesia return to the original 1945 constitution: the article limiting presidents to a maximum of two terms in office.

Marcus Mietzner and Edward Aspinall are Indonesia politics specialists at the Department of Political and Social Change in the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific. They have been on the ground following the presidential elections.

Earlier versions of this article appeared at New Mandala and Inside Story. Follow New Mandala's live coverage of today's presidential vote at bit.ly/IndoVotes  


Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team