Backroom deals, money politics and flawed presidencies

Irawan Ronodipuro

IO – As we get closer to the 2019 presidential elections, it is almost a foregone conclusion how it will be covered in the international media.

The narrative you will be reading is something like this:  Indonesia’s free and direct electoral contest for the presidency, the world’s largest in terms of voter turnout, is a beacon and model for other nations with predominantly Muslim-denominated populations.  The fact Indonesia is home to more Muslims than any other place on the globe is a testimony to what is hopefully an alternative and viable future for the Islamic world in places far-flung from the Indonesian archipelago, namely South Asia, North Africa and the Middle East.  And as the world’s third largest democracy, Indonesia sets an important example for other nations, particularly in Asia, where illiberal authoritarian-type regimes still have a grip on power.

Perhaps, in part.  But for those who bother to lift the veil on Indonesia and cares to look at reality, one comes to the stark conclusion its democratic process and political culture are far from perfect.  Elitism prevails.  Appointed officials tend to care more about vested interests and wealthy patrons than their constituents.  Embedded elites controlling political parties treat the political system as a marketplace for trading favors and hence monetize their power at the expense of the common Indonesian.

The truth is, much of the country’s political culture, where money politics and the wide-scale corruption is rampant, can explain why Indonesia consistently ranks in the bottom quartile of Transparency International’s annual report on corruption.  In the recent past it barely ranked above Zimbabwe.

Today’s Indonesia is not the future Indonesian students and activists imagined when they went to the streets in 1998 and demanded then-president Soeharto to step down from power; in fact, it was precisely because of the blatant cronyism and corruption that defined the Soeharto regime that Indonesians finally stood together and made their defiant and unrelenting stance in mass protest.

As a matter of fact, all of Indonesia’s presidents in the post-Soeharto era have had to grapple with scandal-ridden and shady deals within their administrations.

So what went wrong?  And more importantly, can Indonesia’s flawed democracy be fixed?

To be fair, it is not always an issue of a president’s ethics and his commitment, or lack thereof, to combat corruption.  Rather, it is the consequence, in large part, of an egregious flaw in how Indonesia’s political parties and their leaders practice coalition-making and the transactional nature of how cabinets are formulated once a presidential candidate is voted into office.

Although the Constitution clearly states the president has the sole right to select members of his cabinet, Indonesia’s presidents have felt compelled to award cabinet seats to the coalition partners who backed them in the presidential campaign.  Coalition partners are a necessity of electoral politics due to threshold requirements on the minimum number of seats in the House of Representatives a presidential candidate and his political party must hold in order to qualify to run for office.  Rarely does a singular party control sufficient seats to meet those threshold requirements to run in an election without a coalition.

Therein lies the crux of the problem and where corruption at the highest levels begins.    When a presidential candidate and his party start casting about for coalition partners, it is accepted practice partners will provide campaign funds and in return cabinet seats will be awarded should the candidate win.  And for the second largest party in a coalition it is also understood the vice-presidential candidate on the ticket will come from that party.

Such is the nature of Indonesia’s transactional politics.  Political parties are devoid of any ideologies.   In truth, the essence of any party’s quest for becoming part of a ruling coalition is winning cabinet seats and then monetizing that position for oneself and his party.

In short, the system is pre-wired for corruption.

The answer for how this can be fixed is straightforward:  eliminate threshold requirements.

Shockingly simple?  Yes.  Also a shocking—and undoubtedly abhorrent—idea for the political elites currently in power.  The last thing they want is for this beautifully rigged system to be unwound.

Just imagine, if thresholds were to be removed, what would happen next.  More political parties would be free to field their own presidential candidates, and with more competition and hence choices for voters, much more care would be taken to choose candidates with true electoral appeal.  With fewer coalitions, a winning candidate would then be unconstrained in selecting his cabinet and could actually chose professionals over politicians.  No thresholds would therefore result in better candidates, fewer backroom deals and money politics, and, most important, presidential teams with an incentive to focus more on serving the public.

In short, we could have a better democracy.