Time for a change in system of election: Experts

Indonesia's presidential candidate Joko Widodo (left) shakes hands with his opponent Prabowo Subianto after a televised debate in Jakarta, Indonesia, on March 30, 2019.
Indonesia's presidential candidate Joko Widodo (left) shakes hands with his opponent Prabowo Subianto after a televised debate in Jakarta, Indonesia, on March 30, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

Quarrels among families and friends, hoaxes and curses - these are the highlights of Indonesia's seven-month campaign, which will draw to a close when its almost 193 million voters choose their top leaders next week.

"Ask anyone what he knows about the key programmes offered by candidate one and candidate two and he would say nothing, as all he heard were hoaxes and curses," said Mr Rikard Bagun, deputy chairman of the country's largest newspaper, Kompas.

He was referring to President Joko Widodo and his sole rival, former army general Prabowo Subianto, who are No. 1 and No. 2 respectively on the ballot in the April 17 elections.

Mr Rikard believes that a two-way race tends to fuel polarisation as supporters are focused on just one opposing camp, unlike in a race with three or more candidates.

Indonesia's current law - which requires a political party or coalition to have 20 per cent of Parliament seats before they can field a pair of presidential and vice-presidential candidates - is a hindrance to a bigger presidential race.

As the campaign for the presidential election peaks and pushes divisive issues to the fore, observers and experts have suggested changes to make the electoral system fairer and less polarising.

Many voters here have fallen into two opposing camps fanatical about who they support. With the attitude that "my candidate is always right", voters have lost the ability to soundly discuss issues.

Many voters here have fallen into two opposing camps fanatical about who they support. With the attitude that "my candidate is always right", voters have lost the ability to soundly discuss issues.

With Mr Prabowo playing the identity politics and religion cards, as well as viral hoaxes stirring up anger, this has bred tensions and caused rifts within families and communities, threatening national solidarity.

Mr Rikard and other political experts - such as Professor Komaruddin Hidayat, rector of state-run Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic university, and Islamic scholar Azyumardi Azra - are of the view that Indonesia needs to consider a change in how elections are run.

Prof Komaruddin suggested that all relevant parties gather and seriously consider whether adopting an electoral college system where people elect MPs, who in turn choose the president and vice-president, is a better idea for future elections.

Indonesia previously had an electoral college system. In 2004, it held its first direct presidential election, which saw former army general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono voted in.

"People's rights are now observed in the 'one man, one vote' election, but does this lead to people's welfare?" Prof Komaruddin asked, casting doubt on whether voters know who to vote for in order to bring about public policies that would benefit the people.

Many, if not most, voters in Indonesian villages do not read the news regularly and only watch entertainment programmes on TV.

Mr Azyumardi said Indonesia, the country with the world's largest Muslim population, has shown for two decades that Islamic values could well be reconciled with democracy.

But, he added, this is not without challenges and needs to be reviewed and revised for a better way forward.

The Islamic scholar explained that important decision-making processes often drag on at the expense of the public.

Many key government decisions, including those on development projects, must go through lengthy Parliament hearings or court proceedings.

Politics in Indonesia is also getting too expensive, he said, referring to the "political dowry", or money handed to political party elites by anyone wanting to get backing to run for office.

"Our democracy is getting transactional and more corruptive. Candidates have to spend so much money just to get into an arena," said Mr Azyumardi.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 11, 2019, with the headline 'Time for a change in system of election: Experts'. Print Edition | Subscribe