INDONESIA’S RENDEZVOUS WITH DEMOCRACY Gearing up for 2024 elections

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DEMOCRACY

IO – The Government has ultimately agreed to hold the next general election on February 14, 2024, in collaboration with the House of Representatives (DPR), the General Elections Commission (KPU), and the Elections Supervisory Agency (Bawaslu). The decision, which was made on January 24, 2022, not only put an end to rumors about postponing the election, but also snuffed out the discourse for three presidential terms and extend the current term of office until 2027.

The Covid-19 pandemic has indeed had a profound impact on democratic practices and elections around the world. According to “Global Overview of Covid-19: Impact on Elections” by The Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), between February 2020 to December 2021 there were at least 105 postponements of national and sub-national elections, including referendums across the world due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, at the same time, there were also 158 countries that continued to hold their democratic agenda in the midst of the pandemic.

What this shows us is that, first, election postponements were the exception rather than the norm. Although the world is grappling with the pandemic in the past two years, there were more elections held on time than those postponed.

DPR RI
Photo: DOC. DPR RI

Second, although many countries were forced to postpone their elections, the delay only lasted for months, not years. New Zealand, for example, postponed its election originally scheduled for September 19, 2020, to October 17, 2020. Likewise, Serbia and Sri Lanka, which moved their elections from April 2020, to June and August 2020, respectively. As was the case with Poland, from May 10, 2020 to July 2020.

This suggests that all of the delays were caused by circumstances. They were classified as “humanitarian postponements” by Toby S. James, professor of political science and public policy at the University of East Anglia, and Sead Alihodzic, IDEA’s senior programme manager, due to the public health emergency that put voters’ lives in danger.

Third, election postponements longer than six months or a year only took place in a few African countries, such as Chad, Ethiopia and Somalia. These countries are of course hardly the model for democracy. According to The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)’s Democracy Index, Chad and Ethiopia are classified as authoritarian countries. Somalia is not even on the index.

Fourth, these delays were generally carried out at the height of the pandemic in 2020, where vaccines were still non-existent. After the discovery of vaccines and the world began to rein in the pandemic, the cases of election postponements dropped dramatically, from 95 in 2020 to only 10 in 2021. In other words, the delays were meant to mitigate the risk of local transmissions, not to keep hold of power. (FIGURE-1)

FIGURE-1

Therefore, the discourse to postpone Indonesian 2024 Election or to extend President Joko Widodo’s term of office until 2027 is totally groundless and irrelevant from the start, especially given that in the last ten months the number of Covid-19 cases have continued to decline and flatten out.

It is also unreasonable for the fact that in 2020, when the pandemic was raging, Indonesia continued to hold simultaneous regional elections in 270 locales (9 provinces, 224 regencies and 37 municipalities) despite strong public opposition. It was only deferred from September 3, 2020 to December 2020. Similarly, in 2021, the government also held simultaneously village chief elections (Pilkades) in nearly 3,000 villages across the country.

So, when the pandemic is declining, why should the 2024 election be postponed? Many political pundits, on the contrary, think that it should be held on schedule as the public has eagerly awaited to elect a new leader and look forward to a new administration so that the post-Covid recovery can be further accelerated.

The Anomaly of the Three-term Discourse

In a survey conducted by pollster Indikator Politik Indonesia on January 9, 2022, the Investment Minister/Investment Coordinating Board (BKPM) head Bahlil Lahadalia relayed the business community’s wish for President Joko Widodo’s term to be extended by two to three years, until 2026 or 2027.

He made the claim on the ground that the business sector is in the midst of a recovery after having battered by the Covid-19 pandemic for the past two years. He feared that the election could put a damper on the ongoing economic recovery momentum. That is why, he stated, there is nothing wrong with postponing the election until the situation stabilizes.

What Minister Bahlil said was just the latest in a series of concerted efforts to advance the discourse advocating extension of President Joko Widodo’s term of office which had emerged since 2019. If we look back, immediately after President Joko Widodo was inaugurated for the second term on October 20, 2019, the discourse had been rolled out in a subtle manner.

There are two paths the proponents took. First, through constitutional amendments. Since the 2014-2019 term of People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR), the talk for a fifth amendment has been echoed. During that period, the main agenda was to revive the State Policy Guidelines (GBHN) which served as a guidance for national development agenda. However, since November 2019, the amendment issue has shifted to lifting the two-term limit on presidential terms.

Second, the discourse to postpone the 2024 Election. Throughout 2020, the public’s attention was overwhelmingly focused on health emergency brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic and the humanitarian crisis that followed. It was only after the curve began to flatten in 2021 that this discourse was casted again, using the pandemic as the pretext. It was actually not at all too difficult to understand. According to “The Law and Politics of Presidential Term Limit Evasion” by Mila Versteeg, professor of law at the University of Virginia School of Law, globally no less than a third of incumbent presidents whose terms expired in 2000 sought to change their countries’ constitution to maintain their hold on power. This phenomenon did not only occur in non-democratic countries, but also democratic ones.

The research found five strategies that the incumbent presidents employed. First, through constitutional amendments, used by 67% of sitting rulers. Second, through the interpretation of the Constitutional Court ruling regarding presidential term limit (10%). Third, drafting a new constitution (8%). Fourth, making use of their “faithful agents” namely successor who acts as puppet of the incumbent (10%). And fifth, postponing the election (5%).

In the context of Indonesia, the most plausible strategy an incumbent can use to extend their power is through constitutional amendments. The second strategy is moot because in 2018 the Constitutional Court had rejected judicial review petition on Article 169(n) and Article 227(i) of the Elections Law regarding the presidential and vice-presidential terms of office, which according to Article 7 of the 1945 Constitution shall only be two terms.

Indeed, the third, fourth, and fifth strategies are also plausible. But so far the discourse to use either of them have never surfaced. Interestingly, although the three-term argument has widely circulated in the public discourse since the end of 2019, there are four anomalies that have prevented the idea from gaining traction and receiving political support to this day.