Indonesia's proposed increased legislative threshold could backfire for its supporters

By Alexander R Arifianto
Research Fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University

As Indonesia inches closer to its next general election in 2024, political elites are manoeuvring to hold on to their existing power and advantages.

One of the most controversial of these manoeuvres has been the proposal to amend the constitution to allow Indonesian presidents to remain in office for three consecutive presidential terms instead of just two – paving the way for incumbent president Joko Widodo to run for re-election again in 2024.

Another, less high-profile proposal has been put forward by the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the president’s party and the largest party in the national legislature (DPR). It has said it will seek to amend the Law on General Elections to increase the electoral threshold – the minimum proportion of votes needed by a party to secure seats in the DPR.

When the threshold was first introduced in the 2009 General Election, it was just 2.5%. But PDI-P and the Golkar Party, which holds the second largest number of seats in the DPR, have said they now want to increase the threshold to 5% from the 4% set in 2019.

Legislative thresholds are considered important to reduce party fragmentation. If there are too many small parties, the argument goes, governing and passing legislation becomes much more challenging. On the other hand, critics of thresholds argue that they can limit representation of minority groups in the legislature – particularly if the threshold is set too high.

PDI-P Secretary General Hasto Kristiyanto has said that a 5% threshold is necessary to reduce the number of parties in the DPR “to promote more effective deliberation of legislation”. Meanwhile, his Golkar counterpart, Ahmad Doli Kurnia, said that there should be only 6 to 8 parties in the DPR after the 2024 General Election. While he acknowledged that people have the constitutional right to establish new parties, “the criteria for their inclusion in the legislature needs to be tightened”.

There are nine parties currently represented in the DPR. The largest, PDI-P, received 19% of electoral votes in 2019, while the smallest, the Islam-based United Development Party (PPP) received 4.5%. If a 5% threshold had been implemented in 2019, it would have knocked out PPP and two other smaller parties – the National Mandate Party (PAN, which is semi-affiliated with Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second largest Islamic mass sorganisation) and the Democratic Party (the party founded by former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono).

Needless to say, smaller parties have objected to the proposal. Naturally, the Democratic Party and PPP say they want to keep the 4% threshold. But other parties with larger vote shares in the legislature support the increase, such as Gerindra (which secured 12% of the vote in 2019) and the Islamist-leaning PKS.

As this suggests, the proposed amendment could be a means for PDI-P and Golkar – the two largest parties in the DPR – to further consolidate their power. Party leaders want to minimise the amount of deal-making necessary to pass legislation now needed with nine different parties in the legislature. Some observers have therefore expressed concerns that the proposed amendment will only strengthen the oligarchy that already dominates Indonesian political and economic life.

But the proposed amendment might backfire against the parties promoting it. Its enactment might push smaller parties that are aligned with the president’s coalition (such as PPP and PAN) to withdraw their support for the coalition’s other proposed legislative priorities, such as the constitutional amendment to extend Jokowi’s term from two to three five-year terms.

Additionally, politicians from the smaller parties might jump ship, switching their allegiance to the larger ones. Switching parties is not a new phenomenon in Indonesian politics. Lawmakers are known to do it if they believe their party might not secure enough votes to pass the legislative threshold. In 2018, for example, four politicians from the Hanura Party switched to the National Democrats (Nasdem) and PAN, before their party failed to meet the legislative threshold in the 2019 General Election.

It is possible to envision a scenario where politicians from smaller parties switch to larger parties with which they share similar ideological affinities. For example, politicians from PPP might migrate to the National Awakening Party (PKB) – a fellow traditionalist Islamic party affiliated with mass Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama – which obtained 9.7% of the vote share in the 2019 election. Meanwhile, PAN politicians might switch their allegiance to PKS, another reformist Islamic party that has 8.2% vote share and is ideologically similar.

This scenario may result in the presence of only one traditionalist Islamic party (PKB) and only one Islamist party (PKS) being represented in the DPR – something that has never happened in Indonesia’s post-independence history. Instead of marginalising these Islamic parties, the amendment might instead result in the two parties emerging in a post-2024 DPR as even stronger rivals to PDI-P and Golkar.

To conclude, while the two big parties backing amendment might hope that a 5% threshold will further consolidate their power and influence in the DPR, it might result in the opposite outcome. This possibility, along with potential threats from smaller parties to undermine the president’s legislative priorities, will likely see the amendment proposal dropped, and the current threshold retained.

This article was originally published by Indonesia at Melbourne.

Banner image: A woman votes in an Indonesian presidential election. Source: DFAT/Flickr


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