INVISIBLE HANDS Is it democratic to postpone 2024 elections?

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dalang, puppets
Illustration: LEONARDO A. PUTONG

Jakarta, IO – The discourse to postpone the 2024 elections and extend President Joko Widodo’s term, advanced by chairmen of three political parties in the government coalition — Muhaimin Iskandar of National Awakening Party (PKB), Airlangga Hartarto of Golkar, and Zulkifli Hasan of National Mandate Party (PAN) — has sparked political firestorm and drawn public flak. 

This follows on previous remark by Investment Minister Bahlil Lahadalia who claimed to relay the wish of the business community for President Jokowi to serve three terms and elections 2024 be postponed for the sake of business stability. 

Then there was a study by Laboratorium Indonesia 2045 (LAB 45), a think tank, which tried to use examples from several democratic countries as a precedence to paint its legitimacy. Furthermore, in 2021, speaker of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) Bambang Soesatyo argued in favor of amending the 1945 Constitution and hoped that the process could be initiated this year. 

Are we supposed to believe that all these happened by chance? Or is there a “conductor” orchestrating these seemingly concerted efforts to delay the elections? And if so, what is the big design? 

The reasons to postpone 

In general, the narrative espoused by party leaders and Minister Bahlil for postponing the elections is to maintain the national economic recovery momentum so the country can break free from the Covid-19 grip sooner. The business community, meanwhile, are concerned with political instability that may arise prior to and after the elections, creating uncertainty that will eventually hit their bottom line. 

Zainal Arifn Mochtar, Sugiono

It became even more absurd when PAN chairman Zulkifli Hasan tried to use the Russia-Ukraine war as a pretext to delay the elections. According to him, the war would cause global instability which will inevitably impact Indonesia’s economy due to soaring energy and food prices. This, of course, doesn’t make sense. Ukraine and Indonesia are situated in different hemispheres; Ukraine north, Indonesia south. Was he trying to say that the war will spread to Indonesia so the elections have to be postponed? 

Meanwhile, PKB chairman Muhaimin Iskandar tried to use the pandemic and the economy as the justification. As the economy is battered by the pandemic it is only reasonable that the elections are pushed back one or two years to give the economy more time to heal, so he argued. 

Maybe he forgot that, if the past is anything to go by, elections actually spur the economy as spending by the government and political parties increases, driven by intensified political campaign activities. Obviously, this argument does not have any merit. 

Meanwhile, Golkar chairman Airlangga Hartarto went further, arguing that postponing the elections is the aspiration of oil palm farmers. Perhaps he was referring to the oil palm conglomerates, not the farmers. From their pure business prism, elections will only increase their cost as they have to pay “tribute” to political parties. 

If these arguments sound farfetched, illogical and made-up, that is because they do. Elections have been proven to produce strong leaders who receive the support of the majority population. Elections are beneficial for the economic recovery agenda because it will be backed by strong public support. 

Jokowi’s response 

After the controversy intensified, President Jokowi on Saturday (5/3) finally spoke out about his stance. He asked all parties to obey, follow and comply with the Constitution. 

However, he did not prohibit his Cabinet members and leaders of parties in the government coalition from speaking in support of the idea because it is tantamount to “constitutional coup” as the Constitution clearly limits the presidential term to a maximum of two five-year terms. But President Jokowi insisted that as Indonesia is a democracy, everyone is free to speak their mind. 

Jusuf Kalla, Hasto Kristiyanto

President Jokowi should have taken a firmer stance and spoken up more forcefully against it, consistent with his previous statement lambasting those that float the three-term idea of having three malicious intentions: first, to embarrass him; second, to curry favor; and third, to lead him astray. Of course, unless he also has his own agenda. 

President Jokowi’s seemingly normative statement will only encourage proponents to keep voicing the idea when it must stop immediately as it clearly run counter to the Constitution. 

Against the will of the people 

Recent surveys conducted by the Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI) and the National Survey Institute (LSN) — in February and March, respectively — found that the public rejects the idea to postpone the elections whether for pandemic, economic or capital city (IKN) construction reason. 

LSI’s survey tracked the opinion of 1,197 respondents across all 34 provinces in Indonesia. On the first reason, the pandemic, 70.7% disagreed with the idea. They wanted President Jokowi to end his term in 2024, even though the pandemic is not over yet. The second reason, to maintain the economic recovery, was rejected by 74.3% of the respondents. Only 20.5% of respondents supported the discourse while the remaining 11.4% had no opinion. 

Rizal Ramli, Hidayat Nur Wahid

LSN executive director Gema Nusantara Bakry found the results interesting as 70.4% of the respondents also said they were satisfed with President Jokowi’s performance. 

The two surveys show that the public still views democracy and elections as a means to mend their lives after being upended by the Covid-19 pandemic. It is worth noting that 42.3% of respondents said the economy during President Jokowi’s second term is the same as during his first one, compared to 34.6% who said it is better and 23.1% who said it is getting worse. 

The survey results indicated the public’s distrust of the way the government manages the country. They considered recent policies such as retirement savings (JHT), participation in the health care social security scheme (BJPS Kesehatan) being made mandatory to receive government services and the capital city relocation as not having been made in their best interest but rather only benefiting the elite class (oligarchs).

Contrary to national consensus 

The presidential and vice-presidential term limit is stipulated in Article 7 of the 1945 Constitution. Initially, it prescribed that the term of office is limited to five years and a person can be reelected. This led to Sukarno became president for life and Suharto reelected for four times, ruling for a total of 32 years. Do we want to see Indonesia being led again by a president who can remain in power for life and abandon the Constitution again? 

After the 1998 Reformasi movement, the two-term limit on the presidency was instituted through the amendment of Article 7. Since Reformasi, Indonesia has made four amendments to Article 7 which now reads “The President and the Vice President hold office for five years, and may subsequently be reelected for the same office for only one term of office.” 

Elections is a “democracy festa” where the ordinary people are given the right to choose the leader of their liking. Postponing elections means usurping the rights of the people as enshrined in the Constitution. Article 22(e) mandates that elections be held once every five years. What is stated in Constitution is a national consensus that should be upheld and abided by all. This consensus was the result of profound refection during Reformasi era which could only be realized through the great struggle and sacrifice of the Indonesian people. 

Azyumardi Azra

Rather than extending the presidential term, the current administration should in the next two years focus on carrying out its mandates and delivering on campaign promises. If they are unable to do this, then it just goes on to show this regime’s poor leadership quality. 

We should not take the party elites’ proposal lightly and allow the House of Representatives (DPR) to easily amend the Constitution and legalize this illegal act. Otherwise, it risks undermining the authority of Constitution. Moreover, there is no urgency to do this considering the many complex problems that must be addressed towards the end of President Jokowi’s second term. 

Puppet master? 

PAN chairman Zulkifli Hasan publicly revealed the involvement of the Coordinating Maritime Affairs and Investment Minister Luhut Binsar Panjaitan (LBP) in the campaign to postpone the elections. 

Zulkifi Hasan admitted that he was invited by LBP to discuss the idea. PAN was asked to declare its support during its national coordination meeting for elections preparation held on February 15. LBP claimed that President Jokowi had given its support. 

Zulkifli Hasan also recounted his discussion with Golkar chairman Airlangga Hartarto, where the latter confirmed the party’s support for the discourse and would convey it during his working visit to Riau on February 24. Airlangga also asked Zulkifi Hasan to state PAN’s support publicly as he claimed that President Jokowi had instructed him to do so. On the contrary, PKB chairman Muhaimin Iskandar, who chose to remain silent after expressing his support. 

Since the news broke out identifying LBP as the mastermind behind the orchestration to postpone elections, the public has been left curious about the agenda behind. This gives rise to the suspicion of the involvement of the oligarchs (inside and outside the government) in the scheme. 

The suspicion is that those seeking to postpone the elections wish to prolong their hold on power in the current administration and continue to extend their control over the government from behind the screen. The mastermind may hope that by making all political and business elites gravitate toward the idea, he can gain power during the extension period. 

Postpone IKN, not elections 

Before the discourse gained steam, the President and the House passed a law to relocate the capital city (IKN) from Jakarta to Penajam Pasir Utara regency in East Kalimantan. The first phase of construction is expected to be completed in four years, even though the current government only has two years left. Thus, the public can’t help but speculate whether the elections postponement ploy was made after the IKN law was passed so that the incumbent regime can see the project through. They feared that if a new government is sworn in, the project might be scrapped. 

If this happens, the project owner and vendors will suffer tremendous loss and their plan to reap huge profits ruined. Thus, allowing the elections to happen according to schedule carries a huge risk. This is the reason why they are so insistent in their efforts. 

According to Trend Asia, an NGO that advocates for sustainability of the environment and public health, in their report “IKN untuk Siapa?” (Who Is IKN for?), the IKN project is plagued by alleged collusion. For instance, forestry tycoon Sukanto Tanoto as the largest concessionaire of land at the IKN site reportedly owns 161,127 hectares of land around the central district (Ring 1) of the future capital. 

In addition, son of former House Speaker Setya Novanto, a coal magnate, also owns large swathe of land there. LBP, through his coal mining company, also owns land at the periphery (Ring 3), at Muara Jawa to be exact, covering an area of 6,000 hectares. Meanwhile, Hongshi Holding Group of China, in a joint venture with PT Semen Imasco Asiatic Indonesia, sought to become the main cement supplier for the project as it planned to build a new plant in East Kalimantan. 

Now is also not the right time for the capital city relocation when Indonesia is still saddled with Rp6,900 trillion of external debt (per January) and running a budget deficit above 3%, amid declining state revenues. 

IKN will only add more burden to state finances, especially given that the project does not benefit the people as a whole, only certain interest groups. 

The academic script required in the formulation of the IKN was not drafted in a comprehensive and inclusive manner, especially with regard to the environmental impact and funding, as well as the geological and geostrategic aspect. 

The chosen site can also potentially waive the coal mining concessionaires’ liability for the damage they cause to the environment. There are a total of 73,584 hectares of coal mining concessions that must be accounted for in the area. 

It would be wise for the elites to postpone the construction of IKN rather than the 2024 elections. 

Achmad Nur Hidayat

A pandora box 

Postponing the elections will serve as a bad and dangerous precedence for Indonesia’s democracy. First, it is a flagrant violation of the Constitution. Second, those orchestrating it can be accused of and punished for criminal abuse of power, conspiracy or even treason. Indeed, the perpetrators have committed an act against public order by creating public controversy that caused restlessness among members of the public. 

This is actually detrimental to President Jokowi himself because it will undermine the authority of the government that is supposed to end its term in a democratic way. The public should strongly counter the discourse. The civil society must unite to criticize political and business elites who are trying to undermine the national consensus of having an election every five-years. 

Otherwise, Indonesia may descend into autocracy where the leader has no term limit and can serve for life. Then the county will be put on par with authoritarian regimes. 

All elements of the nation must reject the narrative as it will derail Indonesia’s reform agenda to become a genuine democracy born out of the people’s struggle against dictatorship in 1998. The political elites must not play with this issue as it will open the door for authoritarianism, destroy the hard-earned democracy and damage the presidential system. 

We must learn from other countries’ experiences where the attempt to tinker with term limit had led to unrest, political instability and military coups. The last thing this country needs is its confident march toward becoming an advanced country derailed by a disruption to its most fundamental democratic process. 

The idea to postpone the elections is like shooting oneself in the foot and tragically it is being supported and advanced by the political elite who are supposed to represent the will of the people. (ach)