Jakarta’s election: Sign for viability of local democracy?

The Jakarta Post | Sydney | Opinion 
July 17, 2012

Mohammad Zulfan Tadjoeddin*

The indication of Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s first-round win in the direct local election for the governorship of Jakarta has come as a much welcome surprise to many. Jakarta’s people have been widely lauded for their increasingly mature approach to local democracy.

We now have the bright and rather optimistic prospect of a liberal local democracy in a nation whose own democratic profile is immature to say the least, amid the increasingly gloomy picture of direct elections.

Wait a second, is it really gloomy? I’m sorry to be the one to break this to you, but it probably is, yes.

Violent incidents in the 2010 pilkada were conspicuously widespread and intense compared with the first cycle in 2005-2008. Regional elections are increasingly expensive exercises.

Local oligarchic hold on public offices at the local level is more deeply entrenched than ever before, built on unholy alliances between businesses, local party bosses and bureaucrats. Thank God, the military is not part of it, yet. Most worryingly, local political dynasties are on the rise, as seen in Banten.

Corruption seems to be the only way to finance pilkada campaigns. Once you win, you can direct local business opportunities to your power base, or put bluntly, to your sponsors or investors; the crooks who bribed you.

Simply stealing local budgets or paying “debts” by allocating government contracts to your cronies is the easiest way to go about this. So when local economies are heavily reliant on local government spending, as is the case of poorer regions, the problem is especially acute.

Contesting local elections is increasingly seen as a lucrative and exhilarating business venture. Although the probability of winning is often slim, the temptation is there. We are now faced with the mushrooming of a very profitable industry — political consultation: parasites on the back of the corrupt political animal providing (political) market assessment and brand imaging.

Consultants’ fees are not the only cost. Larger amounts are needed buy the nomination from party bosses and to pay for the “campaign team” to distribute the even larger amounts required to simply bribe the voters — directly or indirectly. Again, corruption appears to be the only way to finance such business venture.

According to the Home Ministry’s data, 271 heads of regions (or their deputies) faced corruption charges between 2005 and 2011. The arrest of Buol regent, Amran Batalipu, in a bribes-for-oil-palm licenses scandal and the trial of Semarang mayor, Soemarmo, who paid council members to approve his city budget, are two recent examples. If one looks at the patterns of corruption charges faced by elected local leaders, the cases of Amran Batalipu and Soemarmo are clearly the rule rather than the exception.

Direct pilkada is beyond any doubt, simply a popularity contest. It is not about policy alternatives or selecting better quality leaders, let alone a battle of ideologies! This whole mess means that it is practically, though not entirely, inconceivable that good and honest figures will emerge as elected local leaders.

It is often said that people get the leaders they deserve. Voters do indeed demand bribes directly or indirectly and the supply of such bribes flows from aspiring candidates. Convincing voters with policy alternatives and clean credibility is not a favored electoral strategy.

Directly forking out cash — such as serangan fajar (dawn raids) on voting day, paying key community leaders as vote getters or, most loathsomely, masked as social assistance to community groups or mosques — appears to be more effective.

Society is much more concerned with the cover than the contents of the book. Image management is far more important than the policies offered, or the actual personal qualities of the candidate.

It is not important who is and isn’t a crook: what matters is how things look. Assuming direct elections are free and fair, the elected leader is the representation of the society that elects the leader. The elected leader mirrors the society.

In general, direct local elections have failed to produce better local governance and social development. On the former, the political corruption hypothesis and the politicizing of local bureaucracy speak for themselves. On the latter, the World Bank concludes that local electoral reforms have no positive effects on development at the district level, while boosting local public expenditure.

No wonder, public enthusiasm for direct local elections has been consistently declining since it was introduced in 2005. Voters turn out in pilkada is generally lower than in national elections. It has also declined from 2005 to 2010.

Election fatigue is on the rise. Many, such as from Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Muhammadiyah, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), and the Regional Representatives Council (DPD), have called for a rethink and reevaluation of the practice, not to mention prominent individuals, including Prof. Ryaas Rasyid, architect of the Indonesian decentralization reform.

Direct local democracy does not seem viable. Our neighbor Australia, for example, has never directly elected their prime ministers, governors and mayors. But, it does not make Australia less democratic (in essence) compared with the United States, where all of them are directly elected.

From this perspective, it seems that the rise of Jokowi (and his running mate Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama) is a welcome surprise for the viability of local democracy.

His nomination as the mayor of Surakarta was not because he paid local party bosses, and the same is true of his nomination as Jakarta’s governor. He was not a wildly popular candidate in the 2005 Surakarta mayoral election and only won by a narrow margin. He then humbly concluded that it was an accident as the people just probably wanted an unpopular leader.

His huge popularity as mayor and eventual big win in the 2010 the city’s mayor election that he contested for a second time was not because of superficial image creation or vote buying, but due to his performance as mayor. This serves as his main capital to run in the Jakarta election.

In the Jakarta election, Jokowi does not have the “privilege” of an incumbency. He has been nominated by opposition parties. He is an outsider selling his credibility. He never led any polls prior to voting day. He did not use the usual tactics for wining direct elections such as massive televised campaign for image creation and political donations.

Jokowi’s victory in the first round of the Jakarta’s pilkada has been credited to the maturity of local democracy in the national capital.

Jakarta’s voters have been labeled as rational, independent and fluid. These are the required characteristics for a well-functioning democracy.

The fact is that Jakarta is the most prosperous part of Indonesia, dominated by the highly educated middle class. It has most vibrant civil societies and boasts with the close attention of high quality free press.

The rise of Jokowi is more exception than rule.

*The writer teaches development studies at the University of Western Sydney.