Indonesia: Tempo

16 Jan 2018

Unless there is a significant political game changer, it is almost certain that the 2019 presidential election will be the repeat of the old battle between Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto four years ago. This is clearly a setback for democracy in the country.

Left with just two candidates both old faces the public will have little choice. Without alternative candidates, a battle of ideas to address various issues may risk turning personal. Campaigns may become entrapped in rallying support based on mere identity politics. If this occurs, sharp polarization at hte grassroots level may spark conflicts.

On the other hand, one must acknowledge the fact that there is no other strong contender besides Prabowo to challenge Jokowi in the coming race. According to many political surveys, Prabowo’s popularity and electability still stand far above other prospective candidates.

Constitutionally, there is nothing wrong with Prabowo’s re-nomination, despite his defeat in Golkar’s presidential candidate nomination convention in 2004 and again in his bid for vice-presidency alongside Megawati Soekarnoputri five years later. The fact that he lost by a thin margin to Jokowi in the 2014 elections couldn’t prevent him from becoming a presidential candidate for the fourth time.

The problem, in fact, does not lie with Prabowo, but with the presidential threshold regulation spelled out in the general elections law No. 7/2017. Article 222 in that law stresses that only individual parties or coalitions which receive 20 percent of seats in the House of Representatives (DPR), or 25 percent the national vote, may nominate presidential or vice-presidential candidates.

It is hard to comprehend the logic behind the regulation. Its proponents argue that the stability of the presidential system can only be achieved if the elected president is supported significant votes in parliament. However, they fail to anticipate the possible emergence of authoritarian regimes due to the concentration of executive and legislative power in the same coalition parties. They also fail to consider another possibility that could happen: presidential and legislative elections held simultaneously also have the potential to produce a president who does not have the DPR’s support. In other words, the presidential system stability argument is a mere fallacy.

When the general elections law was deliberated at Senayan, the government coalition parties were the main supporter of the presidential threshold article. Thus they are responsible for the limited choices left for the public in the 2019 presidential elections. They ignored protests from four parties, namely Gerindra, Democrat, Justice and Prosperous (PKS) and National Mandate (PAN), which all walked out during the plenary session.

The Constitutional Court’s ruling last week reinforcing the threshold regulation is equally disappointing. Somehow, seven out of nine judges viewed that the regulation did not contradict the article 6-A of the 1945 Constitution which says: “Pairs of presidential and vice-presidential candidates will be proposed by political parties or coalition of political parties participating in the general elections before the general elections are held.”

On paper, the threshold regulation may still facilitate at least three candidates supported by parties. However, at this stage, the political constellations have been divided into two camps: supporters and opposition of the government. There is almost no chance for alternative candidates except the incumbent and his contender.

Prabowo himself seems ready. Well ahead of the regional heads elections, he brought his party closer to the PKS and PAN to fight alongside in the battle. The alliance has brought victory for Anies Baswaden and Sandiaga Uno in the Jakarta gubernatorial elections early 2017. We may still recall how these political campaigns were marred by race-baiting.

If the same pattern breaks out in other regions, the political heat in the country will reach a boiling point. The public’s participation will decline when the elections turn out to be mere power struggles of elite politicians. It is truly ironic that this negative turning point occurs as we approach the 20th anniversary of the reform revolution, which otherwise should have marked the peak of our democratic consolidation.

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