IN A METAL pavilion down a backstreet in Yogyakarta, a mid-sized Indonesian city, Tutiek Widyo is making her pitch to the crowd. She is a candidate for the local legislature from the National Mandate Party (PAN), a small Islamic outfit, in the general election on April 17th. Dressed in a bejewelled headscarf, Ms Tutiek patiently spells out her credentials to the audience, who are mostly elderly. They nod and smile politely, but appear more interested in the free tea and gudeg, a local speciality made from stewed jackfruit.
Yogyakarta is a stronghold of PAN, partly because it is also the headquarters of Muhammadiyah, an affiliated Muslim organisation. Even so, Ms Tutiek needs to whip up as much support as possible. A recent change to electoral laws means that parties need at least 4% of the popular vote to gain seats in the national parliament, up from 2% in 2004. Polls show PAN hovering dangerously near this threshold. Abduljalie, a retired tailor wearing a chequered sarong, says he has voted for PAN at every election since it was founded in 1999. It is crucial that PAN be represented in parliament, he continues; he would never vote for anyone else.
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Other parties are also at risk. Of the ten in parliament, four will not meet the 4% threshold and two others are hovering just above it, according to current polling. The threshold is one of a series of recent rules which are making Indonesia’s elections less competitive.
Indonesia is still a young democracy. Following independence from the Netherlands in 1945, it experimented briefly with competitive elections before slipping into four decades of authoritarian rule under first Sukarno and then Suharto. The latter allowed parliamentary elections, but with only two cowed opposition parties. Pliant parliamentarians then selected the president from a shortlist of one. It was only after Suharto resigned in the face of mass protests in 1998 that the country reverted to free elections.
On the face of things, democracy has thrived since then. The subsequent presidential elections have all been genuinely competitive. Democracy pervades every level of government. Voters get to choose a chief executive and a parliament not just for the country as a whole, but also for provinces and the next layer of administration, cities and districts. The press is free and public protests are common.
But Indonesia’s political parties are not as keen on competition as its voters appear to be. The biggest ones are developing something of a cartel. They have been drawing up rules that not only make it harder for old parties to survive; creating new ones is becoming trickier too. In 1999, when new election laws were approved, the government was battling separatists in Aceh, East Timor and Papua. To stymie the splittists, the new rules required national parties to have officers not only in half of the country’s provinces, but also in half of the districts within those provinces. Even though the threat of secession has faded, the barriers to new parties have continued to rise. Now parties must have chapters in all provinces, three-quarters of districts and half of sub-districts.
Options for voters are narrowing in the presidential race, too. In the first direct presidential election of the democratic era, in 2004, there were five candidates on the ballot. This year it is a two-horse race. As in the previous contest, in 2014, Joko Widodo or Jokowi, the incumbent, faces Prabowo Subianto, a former three-star general. Jokowi has worked hard to limit the number of contenders. In 2017 his coalition government refused to scrap a law requiring presidential candidates to have the support of at least 20% of MPs. Since the coalition controls more than 60% of seats, the rule in effect meant that Jokowi could have only one opponent. Opposition parties and one of Jokowi’s then coalition partners stormed out in a vain protest.
The contest could have been even less competitive. A year ago Jokowi and Mr Prabowo toyed with the possibility of running on a joint ticket, despite having battled one another fiercely in the previous election. That would have ended any semblance of a meaningful contest. Talks fell apart, but observers saw the possible partnership as a sign of the increasingly collusive nature of Indonesia’s democracy.
Voters’ frustration is borne out at the polls: turnout for presidential elections has fallen at every vote since 2004, albeit from a high starting point. The angst is also apparent online. In January campaign materials for Nurhadi and Aldo, a fake but plausible presidential ticket, spread across social media. The invention of internet wags, the mustachioed men posed piously in photos and championed vague social programmes. The fiction was accurate down to a portmanteau nickname: Nurhadi and Aldo became “Dildo”.
Perhaps the most egregious erosion of voters’ choice is happening at the regional level. At these votes last year 9% of ballots only had one candidate, up from 1% in 2015. The practice was permitted by the constitutional court in 2014. It is the result of sweeping coalitions, sometimes including virtually all the parties. The political spoils get shared out and there is no need to waste money competing. Yet even unopposed candidates are not always shoo-ins. Last year one lost the mayoral vote in Makassar, a big eastern city, to blank ballots. Indonesians are still finding a way, it seems, to express their discontent.