In Search of Democratic Platforms

published in The Jakarta Post Special Edition “Outlook 2014: Analyses, Challenges and Opportunities in the Year of Choices” (January 2014)

In Search of Democratic Platforms

Philips Vermonte, Head, Department of Politics and International Relations, CSIS Jakarta


The year 2013 was seen as a prelude to the political year of 2014. One of the weirdest political scenes in 2013 was when political parties had to advertise in the media in order to find people to be listed   as their candidates for the legislative election. The parties had to rush to recruit candidates to meet the deadlines for names submission set by the General Election Commission (KPU).

This, I guess, is a symptom of how our political parties are dysfunctional. Party recruitment and training program are indicators of whether a political party is functioning well. A political party has to be ready with its recruitment process immediately after an election is over.  It has to start all internal political processes right away. By doing so, those who lose in the election will be able to quickly regroup, while the winner consolidates.

But what we saw in such advertisements in the media reinforces the image widely held by the public that politicians and/or political parties are just regular job seekers. Politicians are no longer thought of as noble individuals. Politics then becomes an arena that good people do not intend to enter.

Not surprisingly, until last year, anti-political sentiment was pretty high.  A survey conducted by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in June 2012 revealed that more than 50 percent of the respondents thought that political parties had performed badly or very badly.

The evaluation from the electorate about the parties’ performance serves as an indicator that our political parties are weakly institutionalized. Political parties rely more on their head figures than on their political machinery. I believe that political parties’ inability to carry out a regularized recruitment mechanism is a root cause of all political problems that Indonesia faces today.

Political parties are then organized along the line of pragmatism, not ideological principles. As a result, the electorate cannot differentiate one party from another, resulting in a prolonged anti-party sentiment. For sure a certain degree of pragmatism is needed in politics.

But the irony is this: pragmatism as a new norm in party politics should bring about good public policies, while in fact it does not. Corruption remains rampant to the level no longer acceptable to the public. Various public opinion surveys have revealed that political parties and the legislature are considered among the most corrupt institutions in the country.

In fact, there are two basic functions that must be fulfilled by political parties through their representatives  (members of the House of Representatives): legislation and representation. These two functions can be set as benchmarks to evaluate the performance of our representatives.

On the legislation side, last year the House only passed seven laws, far from 70 it planned in the National Legislation Program (Prolegnas) for 2013. It repeated the low legislative performance recorded in the previous three years.

In 2010, the House only passed eight laws. In 2011 only 18 of targeted 93 were passed. In 2012, it only produced 10 out of the planned 64.

It raises a pertinent question about the lawmaking capacity of our lawmakers, which I believe goes back to the weak recruitment and training mechanism within each political party.

On the representation side, our lawmakers also fare poorly, at least in the eyes of the electorate. The most recent CSIS survey, which was released in November 2013, delivered worrying number — 81 percent of constituents did not know House politicians from their electorate districts (dapil).

The survey also revealed interesting facts. Supporters of PKS, for example, are relatively the most ‘knowledgeable’ about lawmakers from their electoral districts compared to supporters of other political parties.

The number of PKS voters who know their representatives (regardless of the parties to which those politicians belong to) is higher than other political parties: 30.8 percent of the PKS voters know the House lawmakers from their electoral district, followed by Democratic Party (PD) voters with 26.8 percent and PAN with 26.3 percent.

These numbers are higher than those of the old parties, namely PDI-P, Golkar and PPP.

Politically, this is interesting because the PKS, the PD and PAN are new parties, formed after the fall of Suharto. It remains to be seen whether we are witnessing a new generation of voters more sophisticated and rational. At the very least, we are starting to see the fruits of our persistent efforts to reform our political party system.

Nevertheless, we continue to see a so-called “coattail effect” in the way our voters reveal their preference. That is, strong and popular individuals are the main vote- getters for the party, not the systemic and organic electoral works by the party members. 

Approaching the 2014 election, the “Jokowi effect” has become more discernible. The CSIS’ November 2013 survey found that if the election was held at that point, the PDI-P would have won 17.6 percent, trailed by Golkar with 14.8 percent; the Gerindra with 8.6 percent, and the PD with 7 percent.

The PDIP-P has gained hugely from the popularity of Jakarta Governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. If the governor’s name eventually finds it way to the ballot paper, according to the same CSIS survey, the number of votes that PDI-P would garner would almost double to29.9 percent, dwarfing the support Golkar would win (15.1 percent),  Gerindra (9.2 percent) and PD (4.6 percent).

This creates a good prospect for another political “experimentation” by the PDI-P. If the party won 29.9 percent, the prospect for a minimum-winning coalition would be clear. It would surpass the 25 percent threshold required to self-nominate a presidential candidate. It would not need to form a coalition to nominate presidential and vice presidential candidates.

Consequently, should it win the election, the PDI-P could actually form a governing Cabinet without having to accommodate pressures from other parties wanting to access the power via Cabinet seats.

President SBY succumbed to this pressure in 2009, despite the fact he won by landslide in the presidential election.  He opted for the “maximum-winning coalition” and included almost all of the political parties in his Cabinet. Yet, we have all witnessed how the “maximum-winning coalition” did not work and the President could not push through many of his policies.

The PDI-P has taught us one important lesson in politics: being an opposition party is good and your political power will not be diminished. The PDI-P is now enjoying the fruits of its brave decision to be an opposition party for two electoral cycles, from 2004 to 2014.

The year 2013 was probably the right time for the PDI-P. It nearly won, and finally won, several important and strategic local elections. In West Java, the party’s candidates Rieke Dyah Pitaloka and Teten Masduki came second by a small margin,  against a strong incumbent.

The same thing occurred again not long after the West Java gubernatorial election. In the North Sumatera gubernatorial election, the PDI-P’s candidate also came second. The same was true in the Bali gobernatorial election. Finally, the PDI-P won the gubernatorial election of Central Java. These are important provinces in the context of our national elections. They are densely populated and have a large number of seats up for grab in the 2014 legislative election.

The experiences in those four provinces tell us that the PDI-P’s party machine works and relatively more organized than other political parties.

It is likely that PDI-P can once again teach the country another political lesson by forming a minimum-winning coalition should Jokowi and his running mate be elected president and vice president, which is letting the winners govern and implement their preferred policies.  

What we need in elections are not sore losers, but a good losers who can then fill the role of opposition that have been consequently played out by the PDI-P in the last ten years.

Unfortunately, the fate of Jokowi’s possible presidential nomination lies within the hands of a small number of individuals in the PDI-P’s elite circle. It is probably the biggest challenge for the future of our democracy.

What has not been done in terms of political reform since 1998, ironically, is to internally democratize our political parties. The party oligarchs or the owners of the parties are tightly controlling our political parties. As such, our political parties are not democratic platforms. This not only goes for the PDI-P, none of them are.



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