Indonesia tries to postpone elections
The next general elections in Indonesia won’t be held until Valentine’s Day 2024. But in Indonesian politics, it’s not far off. The country’s oligarchic political elites are already maneuvering to maintain their grip on power, and some do not want to face the polls in two years.
Powerful figures including coordinating ministers Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan and Airlangga Hartato, who is also chairman of the Golkar party, are suggesting that the elections be postponed to give incumbent President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) more time to deal with the consequences of the pandemic.
Others are even calling for the constitution to be changed to allow presidents to serve for three consecutive terms instead of two, paving the way for Jokowi’s re-election in 2024.
Although Pandjaitan recently claimed that unspecified “big data” shows that 110 million Indonesians support postponing the elections, polls suggest that public support is very limited.
Jokowi has not publicly endorsed the postponement or a third term, but Pandjaitan – the ubiquitous “minister of everything” – is very close to Jokowi, and many suspect Jokowi is ready to extend his term.
In any case, these proposals have been around for a while and just aren’t going away – and they’re generating huge controversy.
Term limits at the heart of Indonesian democracy
It is not difficult to understand why. During his second term, Jokowi skillfully built a restless but formidable coalition of powerful allies and former enemies, including party leaders and powerful tycoons. This coalition now dominates Indonesian politics.
If Jokowi is re-elected, it would continue to give his elite supporters unfettered access to the massive financial rewards that come with power in Indonesia – precisely what the two-term limit is meant to prevent.
After more than three decades in power, the authoritarian, military-backed regime of former President Soeharto collapsed in 1998. Under his rule, corruption and the denial of rights had become institutionalized as the elite plundered the economy.
Read more: Soeharto: the giant of modern Indonesia who left a legacy of violence and corruption
Political leaders trying to hold on to power and hold the country together in the chaos that followed his resignation came under massive popular pressure to hold the country’s leaders more accountable. This triggered four years of constitutional amendments that reinvented the Indonesian political system, moving it decisively away from dictatorship and toward liberal democracy.
The two-term limit was a centerpiece of the First Amendment to the Constitution in October 1999. It was intended to prevent the rise of another dictator like Soeharto and his predecessor, Soekarno, who had once been declared “president for life”. . The change was of enormous symbolic importance.
In fact, it was central to the Reformasi (Reform) program, with free elections and the withdrawal of the armed forces from politics. To reverse this situation would be a blow to the fragile Indonesian democratic system.
Relaunch of the People’s Deliberative Assembly
Proposals to scrap the two-term limit are not the only evidence that elite enthusiasm for Indonesian democracy may be running out. There is another proposal for constitutional amendment which is closely related to it and which could also be very damaging: the reintroduction of the GBHN (general outlines of State policy) of the New Order, henceforth called PPHN (orientations of the state policy).
Under Suharto, these five-year plans were used by a sort of super-legislature, the MPR or People’s Deliberative Assembly, to set the government’s political agenda. In theory, the president, who was not elected, was chosen by the MPR to implement the GBHN, and had to deliver a “responsibility speech” before the MPR to retain his support. If the MPR rejects this speech, it could dismiss the president.
This was all a formality under Soeharto, as he had an iron grip on the MPR numbers. However, the potential of the GBHN system to control the president became apparent when Soeharto’s successor, President Habibie, abandoned his plan to retain the presidency after the MPR rejected his speech of accountability in 1999.
Thus, if the Constitution is amended to give the MPR the power to issue PPHNs, it follows that a similar mechanism might seem necessary to make the President accountable to the MPR for their implementation. This would be a huge power grab by the MPR, which now has much more limited powers than it had under Suharto (again, due to post-Soeharto constitutional changes).
Today, the MPR can do little more than amend the constitution, but it could use this crucial power to reintroduce the PPHN and gain power over the president and, in doing so, the government.
Moreover, if the MPR makes the president responsible to it for the implementation of the PPHN, and is therefore able to remove him more easily, the question will inevitably arise: why could the MPR not also choose the president, as was the case under the New Order?
In other words, it would not be a huge leap between the implementation of the PPHN system and the end of direct presidential elections.
Read more: A requiem for Reformasi as Joko Widodo unveils Indonesia’s democratic heritage
It is no coincidence that Bambang Soesatyo, the current president of the MPR – naturally, a strong supporter of the PPHN – has also previously called on the MPR to have the power to appoint the president.
Imagine the power of Soesatyo if he gets what he wants: the MPR would have the power to set the government’s political agenda, and it might also end up being able to choose the president, hold the president accountable to the PPHN and let him have more than two terms.
But imagine if a president then took control of the MPR – he could stay in power indefinitely. This would mark the return of a very substantial part of Suharto’s New Order system.
None of this is impossible. Jokowi’s government more or less controls about 80% of the DPR (ie 460 of the 575 seats in the DPR, including all but two small parties).
The MPR is a joint meeting of the DPR and another body, the otherwise powerless Regional Representative Assembly (or DPD). But according to the law, the DPR still constitutes two-thirds of the MPR. This means that the government is not far from having the figures in the MPR that it needs to initiate the amendment of the Constitution (two thirds, or 474 of the 711 seats of the MPR).
If Jokowi’s DPR coalition were strong (and that would involve a lot of ‘money politics’), only 14 people would be missing from the MPR. He might be able to make up that number by DPD members, perhaps giving the DPO a more meaningful role.
Is a political agreement to remove the presidential term limit in exchange for giving the MPR the power to issue the PPHN and possibly even appoint the president out of the question? In other words, could the MPR force Jokowi to accept the PPHN in exchange for removing the two-term limit and letting him run again?
Not now, but not impossible
So far, none of that is happening – not yet, at least. There is still anxiety, even fear, among oligarchs and party leaders about the dangers of restarting the amendment process that brought about such vast change between 1991 and 2002. Once that door is open, and the whole Indonesian system is up for grabs, who knows where it may lead?
A clear and agreed – and very costly – intra-elite deal enclosing nearly all parties and most major political players would be needed to amend the constitution, and that has yet to be achieved.
But the Indonesian political landscape can change very quickly when the elite agrees. This is why figures like Pandjaitan and Hartoto continue to push to postpone the 2024 elections.
The Islamic identity parties PKB and PAN have come out in favor of the postponement, but the chairman of Jokowi’s PDI-P party, former President Megawati, and the chairman of the Gerindra party leader and defense minister, Prabowo Subianto , both opposed it.
But if they and other powerful figures like the chairman of the National Democratic Party (Nasdem), media mogul Surya Paloh, can be persuaded to support the postponement, it could still happen, and the reasons given will not matter. not very important. In recent years, the elite has shown that, if united, they are willing and able to face huge popular protests.
And if the elections are delayed and Jokowi stays in power, an intra-elite deal with the MPR to amend the constitution and start dismantling democracy would start to look a lot less difficult.