Fri, 02 Jun 2000

Direct elections?

With the office of the President constantly beset by problems, the possibility of the people electing their president through direct elections instead of through their representatives in the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), as is currently the case, is once again becoming a public issue. The idea seems to be that the current problems concerning the presidency and the government result from a lack of legitimacy, since even though the President was democratically elected, he was elected not on the basis of any electoral majority, but by political party maneuverings in the MPR.

In the meantime, one may recall that when the subject of direct presidential elections was first publicly raised some time ago -- by, among others, then president B.J. Habibie, -- it was received by the public as little more than a kind of interesting mental exercise in a newly rediscovered climate of democracy. The Constitution, after all, prescribes that the president and vice president be elected by the MPR for a term of five years. In the case of the president being incapacitated through illness or being otherwise indisposed, his or her position is taken over by the vice president. The MPR, thus, functions as a kind of electoral college, as is known in the U.S. and other countries throughout the world.

Obviously, replacing the current system of electing a president and vice president through the MPR requires amending the Constitution, which, at that time, few people were ready to do. Times, though, continue to change, and with the country's political elite continuing to maneuver for power, the vulnerability of the office of the president in this kind of power play is becoming increasingly clear. Hence, the renewed interest in the possibility of holding direct presidential elections.

On the one hand, those who are for direct elections argue that having the president elected directly by the people is not only more democratic, but it gives the office of the presidency -- and also that of the vice presidency -- greater legitimacy and brings maneuvering by political parties in the national legislatures to a minimum.

On the other hand, those who oppose such a scenario argue that the people are not ready for direct elections and must be given time to "mature". Under current circumstances, so the argument goes, direct presidential and vice presidential elections would benefit leaders who have charisma, possibly disregarding the factor of capability. It may be recalled that the "public debates" on television talk shows before the general election last year had little effect, if any at all, on the people's choice.

With regard to this kind of pessimism, it may be useful to point out that the direct election of leaders by the people is not exactly new to Indonesians. At village level, people have, as long as memory can recall, elected their village heads directly, with few problems. To elevate such village elections to national level, however, takes a good deal of planning and preparation.

In brief, everything considered, direct elections -- shortcomings and all -- would seem to guarantee the results that are most acceptable to all. By ensuring greater legitimacy, at least it may prevent the kind of continuous disarray that has plagued the current administration ever since its inception and, thereby, help this nation on its way to greater democracy and prosperity.