Wed, 24 Dec 2003

Parties and people's aspiration: Where do we draw the line?

The Jakarta Post Jakarta

A total of 24 political parties have been declared eligible to contest the 2004 elections, when the country will hold its first ever direct presidential election since declaring independence in August 1945.

If political parties are manifestations of the people's aspirations, then many people will not be represented in the upcoming elections as the number of parties qualified to contest them is only half of the number that participated in the 1999 election, dubbed the freest and most peaceful election since independence.

More than that, the number of parties qualified to contest the upcoming elections accounts for roughly one-tenth of the 237 parties registered with the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights. Only 44 of those parties, however, passed the rigorous screening by the ministry and were thus declared legitimate political parties.

Does this mean that only one-tenth of the country's around 140 million eligible voters will cast their votes when Indonesia holds its legislative election in April 2004 and direct presidential elections in July 2004?

Nobody knows for sure yet. But if the 1999 election offers any clue to next year's elections, then one should have no reason to worry. In the first election after the former dictator Soeharto's downfall in May 1998, only 48 of the over 120 parties registered with the KPU contested the election. Come election day, almost 95 percent of the some 118 million eligible voters came out in throngs to exercise their voting rights.

Does this mean that a country as big and diverse as Indonesia needs 48 political parties? Well, in the 1999 election, only 10 of the 48 political parties garnered enough votes to get representatives into the House of Representatives. And out of this 10, only six passed the 2 percent electoral threshold: the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI Perjuangan), the Golkar Party, the United Development Party (PPP), the National Awakening Party (PKB), the National Mandate Party (PAN), and the Crescent Star Party (PBB). These six parties automatically qualified to contest next year's elections.

However, it is still too early to say that Indonesia, the world's biggest archipelagic country with a population of around 215 million, needs only six political parties. The reason is that most political parties rely heavily on the charisma of their leaders rather than political platforms.

The PDI Perjuangan counted on Megawati Soekarnoputri, a daughter of founding president Sukarno. Golkar, which was used by former dictator Soeharto as his political vehicle for more than three decades, relied more on its extensive network rather than its programs. The PKB banked on former Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) chairman Abdurrahman Wahid and the NU's network rather than its political agenda, while PAN, PPP and PBB built on the reputations on their leaders, Amien Rais, Hamzah Haz, and Yusril Ihza Mahendra respectively, to garner votes.

The KPU deputy chairman, Ramlan Surbakti, once said that the existence of so many new parties in the county reflected the fact that the existing parties, particularly those with seats in the House, do not have clear political platforms.

Besides, he said, the emergence of new political parties was also caused by splits in the party executive boards as a result of jostling for power within the parties, something that indicated the absence of open, transparent and competitive mechanisms. Such splits were not caused by ideological differences.

With the elections fast approaching, these political parties are likely to employ similar tactics in 2004 to those they used in the 1999 election. But as most, if not all, of the leaders of these political parties have performed very poorly over the past few years, and thus have nothing to sell in the upcoming elections, some political parties have started recruiting celebrities and former military and police officers as their legislative candidates. This highlights, once again, the fact that most political parties are built on personalities rather than political agendas.

Indeed, the requirements for setting up a party are relatively easy in Indonesia. According to Law No. 31/2002 on political parties, a party can be established by at least 50 Indonesian citizens of not less than 21 years of age.

A party is also required to have executive boards in at least 50 percent of the country's 32 provinces, or in 16 provinces, and in 50 percent of the total number of regencies and/or municipalities in the 16 provinces, as well as 25 percent of the total subdistricts in the respective regencies and/or municipalities.

And, in order to contest a general election, a party is required to have offices and executive boards in two-thirds, or 21, of the country's 32 provinces, and 50 percent of the total number of regencies and/or municipalities in those provinces, and 25 percent of the total subdistricts in the respective regencies and/or municipalities.

Meanwhile, Soegeng Sarjadi from the Center for Political Studies said that the presence of so many political parties indicated a high level of political awareness on the part of Indonesian people.

The emergence of these new political parties could produce new leaders capable of bringing about real reform in the country.

However, many still believe that the arrival of the new parties will do nothing to bring about meaningful change in the country.

Indonesia is still ranked among the most corrupt countries in the world, although the reform movement gave a mandate to combat corruption to the country's new leaders who took over after the fall of the Soeharto regime in 1998.


graphics: list of 24 parties contesting in 2004 parties

According to the writer, the requirements for setting up a party in Indonesia are relatively easy. This is not the case. The requirement to have party organizations in so many provinces and regencies is virtually impossible to comply with for new parties, and will not be regarded as "relatively easy" by people who are used to democracy. This requirement preserves the status quo and is designed to prevent people in "troublesome" provinces from having a voice -- in other words, it is completely undemocratic, guarantees Jakarta's continuing dominance, and makes a mockery of the entire democratic process! Perhaps you should consider taking out the "relatively easy" bit of this sentence?