In 2014, Democracy Will Start at the Local Level

With 2013 coming to an end, Indonesians are beginning to prepare themselves for the next presidential election, which will be carried out in 2014. The candidates are starting to promote themselves in TV commercials, on the radio, in newspapers and with flyers. And the gossip and political drama that surrounds such an important event has already begun.

For many Indonesians the drama of the presidential election campaigns is inescapable. But 2014 is an important year for Indonesian democracy for other reasons; Indonesian voters will get the chance to vote for their local leaders, the men and women responsible for delivering key public services and ensuring that their voices are heard at the national level. With 15 parties competing in the elections on both stages, many important decisions will have to be made.

Indonesian democracy has been on the right track since the end of New Order era. During the reformation era, which began in 1998, direct presidential and local elections have been conducted several times. However, we have only seen slight progress in the democratic process between elections and small improvements in the way elections are administered, such as improvements in the voter lists.

According to the latest figures from the Indonesia Democracy Index, Indonesia remains a “medium performing” democracy, with many areas for improvement.

One feature of the election process has remained problematic through this period, especially at local level: the candidates.

This is not to say that there have not been exceptions. Some of those who have been elected, especially those elected to high-profile positions, have had great public appeal. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is a charismatic leader who was able to carve out a prominent place on the political stage during the Megawati Soekarnoputri era and stand out from the crowd. The now-famous governor of Jakarta, Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, is another example. The down-to-earth and sometimes eccentric leader is just what the people had been craving and he came to the job with first-class credentials.
During his time as governor he has managed to capture the attention of not only Jakartans but also that of many Indonesians across the archipelago.

With the 2014 elections on the horizon, however, the local-level choices seem less than inspiring. And many Indonesians are asking themselves: what have these candidates done for Indonesian to deserve our vote?

At the national level, the choice is somewhat easier. Most of the candidates have high profiles. We know their backgrounds, their behavior and their flaws. The question is, how well do we know our local candidates?

With each of the 15 parties presenting 7 candidates at the local level, there are many to choose from. With such a large selection, it is difficult for voters to make an informed decision. In an attempt to overcome this, the government has created a website where voters can access information on each of the candidates, including a full biography.

While the site is a great resource and will undoubtedly help many Indonesians to make their decisions, it seems something of an attempt to paper over the cracks in Indonesian democracy. Why are our future leaders and representatives presented to us in the same way we pick items on online shopping website? Does the website allow for reviews? Will there be any 5-star candidates for the local elections? It seems unlikely.

The fact that we hardly know the candidates shows that parties’ efforts in searching for charismatic and talented local representatives with the potential to be great local leaders are still at a minimum.

Strong and capable politicians who are able to represent and improve the lives of those who elected them are a cornerstone of democracy. And improving the quality of candidates is a key step in consolidating democracy in Indonesia.

Building stronger links between voters and local representatives must lie at the heart of the solution. And voters have a key role in strengthening these relationships. Voters must take a stand and demand that locally elected representatives truly represent them. They must base their votes on what they experience, not what they read. While a website full of information on candidates is useful, voters must harness the power of their votes to demand representatives who have shown they are committed to the people.

The government can also play a role. Putting a cap on the campaign budgets will reduce some of the incentive for parties to select candidates based on wealth and access to resources. This should stimulate parties to base their choice on track record and popular appeal.

The 2014 elections will soon be upon us. While we can hope that the government will take actions to address the problems in the election system that hold Indonesia back, ordinary citizens have the power to strengthen democracy. We must demand more from our politicians. This begins by choosing wisely at the polls.

Sidarta Danang Kristianto is a researcher at Strategic Asia, a consultancy promoting cooperation between Asian nations. He can be contacted at danang.kristianto@strategic-asia.com.

Previously published in the Jakarta Globe

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