21st Century Challenges to Democracy. Part III: The role of political structures and systems in preventing polarization and extremism

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(Photo: M Aslam Iqbal)

In looking at problems confronting 21st century democracy and possible solutions, the Independent Observer has spoken with a number of international figures. In Part III, we speak to Gareth Evans, former Australian Foreign Minister, Marzuki Darusman former Head of Indonesia’s Human Rights Commission, William P. Tuchrello, former Library of Congress Representative to Indonesia and Kevin Evans, a former Australian diplomat to Indonesia.

IO – While former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans concurs that the new social media environment has played an important role in the democratic crisis that the United States is currently facing, he believes that existing political systems and structures have greatly contributed to the crisis. Gareth Evans observes, “The Myanmar generals have just played out Donald Trump’s script. What more evidence does anyone need that America is no longer a Mecca for the world’s democrats, but an embarrassment? The US democracy crisis has been a long time in the making, a product of money politics, unrestrained gerrymandering, political suborning of the judiciary, shameless subordination of national to party or personal interest by too many politicians, and the new social media environment which has made it ever harder for ordinary voters to separate fact from fiction, and reason from emotion. It is just possible that Joe Biden’s transparent decency will be the country’s necessary wake up call, but a legion of institutional obstacles stands in the way of necessary institutional reform, and persuading millions of voters to rethink their basic instincts will not be easy: the prospect of another Trump in 2024 is very real.”

Former head of the Indonesian Human Rights Commission Marzuki Darusman agrees, “At present in the United States there is on the one hand Trump’s reality and fiction mixed with the reality of information provided by the police and their investigation of suspects. So, there exists a strange nexus between reality and fiction and it has raised the gullibility of the public which former President Trump has exploited and which national events have amplified.

This has been reinforced by the bipolar structure of the party system in America which consists of political conservatives or traditionalists on the one side and liberals or progressives on the other. It has been tried in the past to promote a third party as for example in the case of Ross Perot but this did not get off the ground because there was no structural reference in the whole political framework.”

One of the problems in creating a third or more parties in American is its election system of winner-takes-all or first-past-the-post. Kevin Evans is a former Australian diplomat to Indonesia and has been a close observer of the Indonesian political scene for the last 30 years. He asserts that what the United States should do is to adopt the Australian preferential voting system because its two parties are too large. “They bring together too many people who should not be in the same party. For example, there are white Yuppies, soybean farmers and evangelicals all grouped together in the Republican Party; whereas amongst the Democrats, are trendy digital economic people from California, poor blacks, green environmentalists and old money from New En­gland. So, in the end what you have is a duopoly and with social media which allows hyperventilating, hyper partisanship and mutual feeding you create a bubble which actually makes people more insular.”

In most countries the legislature consists of two chambers. In Indonesia this is the DPR or Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat (the People’s House of Representatives) and the DPA or Dewan Perwakilan Daerah (the Re­gional House of Representatives). In the DPR members are chosen during elections which are based on the principle of one person, one vote, one value. The number of representatives from each province is based on demographics. How many people live in that province will determine how many legislative representatives people from that province have in the DPR. This means that in a province like Central Java that has a population of 34,550,000 people there are 77 representatives in the DPR whereas a province like Papua which has only 3,379,000 inhabitants also only has 10 representatives in the DPR.

This may however, be deemed unfair to provinces which have large territories but small populations. In order to create some balance between demographics and geography most large countries have another house in the legislature. In Indonesia that is the DPD. The number of representatives that a province has in the DPD is the same for each province irrespective of demographics or geography. Each province has four seats in the DPD.

Kevin Evans notes that in the United States there is also an Electoral College which is formed every four years to elect the president and vice president of the United States. The number of electors or members of the Electoral College that each state has is equal to the number of representatives that it has in the upper and lower houses of Congress or the American legislature. The number of electors in the United States Electoral College is 538 electors and to be elected president the winner must have an absolute majority of 270 or more electoral votes. “The Electoral Col­lege was introduced because before the Civil War slaves were counted as only equivalent to half a non-slave. As a result, the populations in slave-owning states were counted as lower than in non-slave-owning states. So, the Electoral College was created in order to prevent a state like New York from always winning presidential elections. It is an antiquated concept but it currently helps the Republican party in America because they consistently win in the small states and it therefore provides extra strength for them.”

Many Americans agree with that. They were not happy that despite Mrs Clinton winning the popular vote by nearly three million votes because of the system of an Electoral College an extreme and polarizing figure such as Mr Trump was able to win the election with a lower percentage of votes. Marzuki Darusman comments, “So you hear that the Electoral College should be abolished because it reinforces the polarization within America. However, one cannot expect that soon. The Electoral College is a complex system of winner-takes-all and has close links with gerrymandering because the winning party has the prerogative of realigning the country’s boroughs to reflect optimum votes for the winning party. So, the candidate chooses the voters rather than vice versa. For change in United States politics they will need to change the law on this because it just deepens the division now it has reached this point.

In Indonesia the system is rule of the political parties whereas in the United States there is no party structure. But with us there is an elaborate structure which is drawn down all the way to the village level. It is structured and monolithic and electoral districts are determined by the consensus of all the parties while in the United States the winner-takes-all.”

Kevin Evans explains that there are several systems for determining election victory in different countries. In the United States if there are several presidential candidates and one of them wins 20% of the vote whereas the others only win 10% each, then the candidate that won 20% is considered the legitimate winner of the elections. This system is known as a first-past-the-post or winner-takes-all system. In Indonesia if a presidential candidate does not manage to get more than 50% of the vote then a second election will be held where the two candidates with the highest percentage of votes will run against each other and the candidate that receives the largest percentage of the votes the second time around, will be considered the winner. In the Indonesian system which is known as the two round system, the system ensures that the president will have the support of more than 50% of the voters in the election. Meanwhile, Australia uses a preferential system of voting. In Australia, if there are five candidates the voter has to mark them on the ballot in order of his/ her preference. If none of the candidates receives more than 50% of the vote, then the votes of the candidate with the lowest number of votes is divided between who that candidate’s voters preferred as their sec­ond preferred candidates. If there is still no candidate with more than 50% of the vote, then the votes of the candidate with the second lowest percentage of the vote is taken and again divided amongst the remaining candidates. This continues until there is a candidate with more than 50% of the vote.

An acute polarization of the public as well as of political parties, can be a danger in democracies. Moder­ation appears to work best in a democracy. Kevin Evans explains how both the Indonesian and even more so the Australian system of voting helps to prevent polarization as well as preventing extremists from gaining control of the country. He asks, “What is truly a democratically legitimate victory? Is it the most popular candidate who is able to energize more voters than others even if this is still a minority of the total voters? Or is it the most acceptable candidate, namely someone whom you would not necessarily have voted for in the first round but who is the most acceptable candidate to the largest number of people? In the elections in 2016 former President Trump was able to win the election because he was the candidate who was the loudest and the angriest and could pull a large cluster of people to vote for him although not a majority of voters – about 46% of the popular vote. In America he was able to do this because of their system of winner-take-all voting and the Electoral College. So, he won the elections despite not winning the most votes. This is exacerbated by the American system of a candidate first having to win in the primaries of their party. In the 2016 primaries former President Trump won about 45% of the vote. Most Republican (more than 50%) did not vote for him. By comparison in Australia, Pauline Hanson was unable to win because of the system of preferential voting where it is not the most popular candidate but the candidate that is acceptable to the largest segment of the population, that wins. In Indonesia for example, extreme religious conservatives can win in Depok where there is a large cluster of their supporters but it is very difficult for them to win in the whole of West Java. Furthermore, America tends to have a low voter turnout whereas in Australia the law requires everyone to vote. This again promotes the most acceptable candidate for the largest number of people which again makes it more difficult for extremists to win.

Indonesia has made significant changes to its political system since the Suharto era. The last was getting a fully open candidate list. It used to be that voters simply voted for a political party symbol but as of 2004 voters could express a preference for a candidate and as of 2009 candidate lists have become fully open. The winner is determined by a party first winning a seat and then its candidate that received the largest number of personal votes takes that seat.”

In Indonesia voting for the legislature is different than voting for the president. Whereas in voting for the president Indonesia follows a two-round system, in voting for the DPR it uses a proportional representation system so that the percentage of votes that a party obtains will determine how many seats that party wins. Meanwhile, in voting for the DPD Indonesia uses a four past the post system namely, the four candidates who get the highest vote win; technically this is called the single non-transferable vote system.

Another weakness in the American political system is that it allows gerrymandering. In gerrymandering a party that has won the elections in a province (or state) and controls the government of that province then fiddles around with the boundaries of the electorates or election districts in that province in order to give the party more seats for the same number of votes. In Indonesia at first the KPU or Komisi Pemilihan Umum (Indonesian Election Commission) used to set the boundaries of the electorates however, later this right was taken over by the DPR. Although this does open the door for more possibilities of collusion at least the boundaries of the electorates are determined by a consensus between the different political parties. In Australia such boundaries are determined by the Electoral Commission with extensive public consultations. In the United States however, at the state level the states determine the boundaries of the electorates and the states are controlled by the party that won the elections in each individual state.

Marzuki Darusman believes, “In the United States there needs to be a structural reform of the political system to allow third party politics which entails starting by reviewing how elections are conducted. Indonesia has a different set of problems. Both countries have problems but neither have been able to address them because of the oligarchic na­ture of politics where the resources and political powers in the nation are concentrated in a limited group of the population. For Indonesia this is a very serious issue that needs to be addressed or it may one day find itself in the position that the United States is in now.”

An oligarchy is a form of government where power is in the hands of a small group of people as for example the aristocracy, the military, certain religious people or the wealthy. In the United States as well as in Indonesia it is the wealthy. Public funding for political parties would be one way of reducing the power of the oligarchy in these two countries. During the Suharto era political parties were given budgets, free air time, free offices and small campaign costs could be recovered. After Reformasi such publicly funded support however, lessened. Consequently, political parties have had to “privatize” themselves. As in America political costs then had to be covered by donations from wealthy individuals, corporations or foundations. In this way oligarchies were created.

However, Kevin Evans asserts, “Having good candidates, good networks to the people, good communications and good think tanks are all assets for a party. When a party does not have these they all need to be outsourced and that adds to the party’s costs. So, money is not the only political party asset. Money is not the determiner of who wins but the predictor. If you have a candidate whom everyone favours that candidate will not only win but will also attract more donations. In Indonesia it is very unhealthy that political donations are seen as investments. This reflects an unhealthy private sector kind of thinking that is too strong in the party system. Public funding should be boosted instead, combined with securing wider agreements on matters like not using political office as a form of personal patronage.

Nevertheless, Indonesia has made significant changes to its political system since the Suharto era. The last was getting a fully open candidate list. It used to be that voters simply voted for a political party but as of 2004 voters could express a preference for a candidate and as of 2009 candidate lists have become fully open. The winner is determined by a party first winning a seat and then its candidate receiving the largest number of personal votes.”

Australia is a good example of a flourishing democracy where the technological advances of an internet with a strong social media presence has not brought on a crisis in democracy. Gareth Evans explains, “Australia’s electoral institutions are very strong, and have been for many decades – independent commissions to determine boundaries, compulsory voting to eliminate turnout vagaries, preferential voting systems to ensure most of those elected are from the centre, left or right mainstream rather than extremist fringes, strong independent judiciaries to resolve disputes, public funding of political parties, and reasonable (though still not complete) constraints on money politics. There’s maybe also something in the Australian culture – a cynical resistance to hucksterism and ‘bullshit’ in every form, a lack of instinctive respect for the self-made rich, and an instinctive egalitarianism – that make it almost impossible to imagine a Trump figure ever gaining popular traction here. There is a well-established Australian political saying, which has plenty of evidence to support it, that “the mob will always work you out”. None of this means we are immune from mediocrity in our governments, as our recent history amply shows. Or that we have always been as attentive as we should have been to the rights of minorities (especially our Indigenous citizens) as well as majorities, which is what liberal democracy demands. But we still seem to be doing better than most, certainly the US.”

Indonesia’s political structures and systems may not be as strong as those of Australia’s in discouraging polarization and extremism but they are in many instances stronger than those of the United States’ in preventing the type of destabilization of a democracy that polarization and extremism cause. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

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Part I of this series discusses the changing demographics, racism, the economy and education and their challenge to 21st century democracy. Please see: https://observerid.com/21st-century-challenges-to-democracy-part-i-the-role-of-changing-demographics-racism-the-economy-and-education/

Part II of this series discusses the internet, fake news and extremism and their challenge to 21st century democracy. Please see:  https://observerid.com/21st-century-challenges-to-democracy-part-ii-the-role-of-the-internet-fake-news-and-extremism/?preview=true

Part IV of this series discusses the roles of China and Russia and their challenges to 21st century democracy. Please, see: https://observerid.com/21st-century-challenges-to-democracy-part-iv-the-influence-of-non-democratic-states/

Part V of this series discusses Lessons and Conclusions for Indonesia. Please see: https://observerid.com/21st-century-challenges-to-democracy-part-v-lessons-and-conclusions-for-indonesia/

Part VI of this series discusses lessons and Conclusions for Indonesia re China. Please see: https://observerid.com/21st-century-challenges-to-democracy-part-vi-lessons-and-conclusions-for-indonesia-re-china/