Proposed changes to Indonesian election law threaten diversity

By Heru Samosir and Dirga Ardiansa
Researchers at Cakra Wikara Indonesia

Proposed revisions to Indonesia’s 2017 Election Law are being closely watched by civil society groups. They are concerned that the changes will concentrate power in the hands of elites at the national level, limit women’s representation in politics, and sideline issues like gender equality, labour rights, anti-corruption efforts, indigenous peoples, and the environment.

A decision on the changes is expected in December as part of the National Legislative Program (Prolegnas) for 2020. A draft of the proposed revisions has been publicly available since May, with input from the nine political party factions in the House of Representatives (DPR) available since August.

One much debated change proposed by the draft centres on the legislative threshold, which determines the percentage of votes at the national level required for a party to gain seats in the DPR. Positions on the issue vary widely among the nine political parties seated in the DPR.

The legislative threshold was first introduced in the leadup to the 2009 elections, as a way to limit the proliferation of parties and stabilise Indonesia’s reform-era political system. When first implemented, the threshold sat at 2.5% of the national vote. But with each election, it has been raised – to 3.5% in 2014, and to 4% in 2019.

The new draft law proposes an even higher threshold of 7% to secure a seat in the DPR. It also suggests that parties that do not meet the threshold at the national level should also be denied seats in Regional Legislative Councils (DPRD) at the provincial, district and municipal levels. Further, it stipulates that parties that fall below the threshold will not have the opportunity to propose candidates for regional heads, as is possible under the existing law.

The proposed changes will severely limit opportunities for smaller parties to gain seats in the legislature. Admittedly, this is one of the aims of introducing a legislative threshold. But the problem is that the larger parties are not carrying out their proper function of encouraging democratisation. Instead, they protect oligarchic power and elitism and maintain the status quo.

A moderate legislative threshold can provide space for healthy competition among political parties. The dismantling of New Order restrictions on political parties after 1998 allowed new parties to emerge, but only some have been able to survive. Some of these “new” parties are now considered major political forces. The Democratic Party emerged in 2004 and has since survived four election cycles. The Greater Indonesia Party (Gerindra) arose in 2009 and the National Democratic Party (NasDem) in 2014. The Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI) arrived in 2019, although ultimately it failed to pass the legislative threshold.

The stricter threshold pushed by the ruling parties will not allow other new parties to follow the path of the Democratic Party, Gerindra or NasDem. It will only narrow competition further and prevent the growth of parties from the grassroots. The move also threatens political participation by voters and representation of diverse communities.

Political participation will be challenged because a higher threshold limits people’s choices in voting. In the 2019 elections, the total lost votes from parties that did not pass the 4% threshold amounted to approximately 13.5 million votes, or 9.7% of valid votes nationally.

Political representation will also be affected, including for women. In the 2019 election, the three parties with the highest proportion of women candidates (PKPI, Garuda and PSI) did not pass the 4% legislative threshold. Meanwhile, the three best-performing parties (PDI-P, Gerindra and Golkar), which received the highest number of votes and seats, were also among those with the lowest representation of women candidates.

Table 1. Women’s candidacy in the 2019 election

No.PartyTotal no. of candidatesNo. of women candidates% women candidates% total vote share (* below threshold)
7Democratic Party57322639.4%7.8%
9Perindo56922338. 8%2.1%*

Source: Cakra Wikara Indonesia

The more established parties tended to only meet the minimum requirement of 30% women candidates, unlike newer parties which were more proactive in nominating women. For example, PSI had 47.7% female legislative candidates in the 2019 elections, the first elections it contested. Meanwhile, PDI-P and Golkar had only 37.5% and 36.7% women candidates, respectively.

As many of the parties with higher proportions of women candidates happened to be those that received fewer votes, this caused a deficit of women’s representation in the DPR, as votes for many women candidates could not be converted into seats.

Graph 1. Trend in candidates, votes and seats

Source : Cakra Wikara Indonesia

As shown in the graph above, 40.0% of legislative candidates in the 2019 elections were women, who received 24.0% of votes, but because of the legislative threshold, only 20.5% were able to convert these votes to seats. There was a deficit of women’s representation of 3.5%, or the equivalent of 20 seats in the DPR.

Increasing the legislative threshold from 4% to 7% would only increase this deficit further, hampering women’s representation in the next election cycle. It would also limit opportunities for new parties to participate in elections and achieve representation in the DPR.

Elections are a central element of any democracy, ensuring the peaceful and regular transition of power. Any proposals to alter their function or structure should be closely monitored.

The proposed changes to the Election Law now before the DPR threaten to narrow the space for competition. Elections will continue to be controlled by the large established parties and there will be little room for alternative discourse.

Critical voices must now make themselves heard now, before it is too late.

This article was originally published on the Indonesia at Melbourne blog.

Banner image: Women voters in the 2009 legislative elections. Source: UN Women Asia and the Pacific/ Eko Bambang Subiantoro


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