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Indonesia's year of living electorally

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COMMENTS

24 February 2009 08:17

Peter McCawley is a Visiting Fellow at the Indonesia Project, ANU, and former Dean of the ADB Institute, Tokyo.

Election fever is warming up in Indonesia. The change from the 'orderly' election arrangements during the Soeharto period is astonishing. The Indonesian election system has been dramatically transformed in recent years from a monopolistic structure during the Soeharto era to today's highly competitive (some would say 'excessively competitive') system.

Two key dates loom large on the Indonesian election calendar in the first half of 2009. First, parliamentary elections are due on Thursday 9 April. And second, the presidential election will be held three months later on Wednesday 8 July. 

To understand the system it is important to appreciate that the formal structure of the Indonesian political system is now similar to that in America. These days, Indonesian legislatures (parliaments) at both the national and regional level are noisy and influential. Previously, during the Soeharto era until the late 1990s, parliaments were toothless and moribund. No more. Now they exercise real power.  

Just as in America, the president is powerful as well. And just as in America, Indonesians cast separate votes for the legislatures and the president (although, as noted, in Indonesia the voting is on separate days, three months apart). The result, like the situation in America, is that the political contests for the legislatures on one hand, and for the position of president on the other, are largely separate.  

To add to the complications, this set of contests is unlikely to end with the presidential election on 8 July. Unless one presidential candidate emerges as clear winner with 50% of the vote (which doesn't look likely), a second round run-off must be held in September. This, in turn, means that a new government is unlikely to be formed in Indonesia until late October 2009.

What does this mean for Australia? The implications are that, first, senior Indonesian decision-makers will be preoccupied with domestic political matters for most of 2009. Nearly all main decisions in Indonesia during 2009 are likely to be taken in the context of a highly-charged political environment. Second, it will be hard to get senior decision-makers to focus on international issues such as the Copenhagen conference on the environment. As one leading US political figure famously put it, 'all politics is local.' This will certainly be the case in Indonesia during 2009.

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