In search of a presidential electoral system

Free and fair elections have brought many good things for Indonesia – if you overlook the tangle of legislative and presidential elections. Will we finally untie the knot this year?

In search of a presidential electoral system AFP Photo/Anton Raharjo/Anadolu Agency

For the first time in its history, Indonesia will hold simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections, on April 17. The Constitutional Court’s decision in the judicial review of Law Number 42/2008 is the basis of the simultaneous national election format that will be put in place in 2019. The rationale behind this change, officially, is not only to cut expenditures for elections across the country, but more importantly, simultaneous national elections are expected to strengthen the architecture of presidential democracy in Indonesia. 

And of course this is clearly worth discussing. 

The presidential political system

Historically, Indonesia has seen a number of procedural improvements since the end of the New Order regime in 1998. But it would seem that previous national elections were only aimed at filling a number of positions in national and local parliaments. There was a disconnect between legislative elections and presidential elections. In this sense, previous elections in Indonesia simply do not reflect our presidential system. It is important to note that Indonesia’s presidential system has been strengthened in the post-New Order era. This was agreed to by the People’s Consultative Assembly, Indonesia’s uber-assembly, in 1999 and further institutionalized through four constitutional amendments between 1999 and 2002. This process was not an easy one and the electoral process only forms a portion of it. 

Four basic interrelated issues are in the constitutional amendments. First, the president and vice president shall be directly elected by the people. Second, the president and vice president shall only hold office for five years, with a maximum of two terms. Third, legislative powers that were previously held by the executive branch during the New Order regime now are the authority of legislative institutions, although they still require presidential approval. Fourth, the People’s Consultative Assembly is no longer the highest institution in the land. These amendments were squarely aimed at strengthening the presidential system in Indonesia. 

However, to have the infrastructure for a presidential system alone is not always enough. The relationship between the executive and legislative is not only determined by the institutional architecture, but also by other variables that are different from country to country. Nevertheless, this relationship is critical in ensuring that an elected government – presidential or otherwise – will be able to govern effectively, or not. 

Theoretically, a presidential system can govern effectively when a legitimate president receives a mandate through a fair election. The separation between the executive and legislative branches should also mean that policy implementation is not overly encumbered by the dynamics of politics inside the national parliament. The underlying assumption is that the least amount of distortion and interruption in the creation and implementation of policy will create a more effective climate for governance. 

Furthermore, a presidential system would clearly work with the support of a majority in parliament. At least in theory. This was tested in Indonesia during former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s two, five-year terms in office, where the support of a large coalition of multiple political parties hindered the government in establishing clear policy lines and compromised the presidential system itself.

A compromise cabinet in a presidential system, however, disrupts the balance between the legislative and executive branches. Thus, although the architecture might still delineate a separation between the two branches, in practice there can be some political compromise between the two branches to ensure that certain policies are implemented and legislation is passed. This can also mean that political compromise would play a role in deciding key positions in the government, such as the head of the police, armed forces and central bank.

This kind of compromise can increase the strength of political parties and weaken the position of an elected president. As a result, even political parties in a coalition can have more bargaining power in a government that will give them more room to rebel against government policy lines. 

How, then, can simultaneous national elections strengthen the presidential system in Indonesia? 
Simultaneous legislative and presidential elections are a logical consequence of a presidential system. It is odd to have legislative
AFP Photo/Aditya Irawan/NurPhotoelections prior to a presidential election, as the latter will be indirectly influenced by the former. For example, the process to vet presidential candidates and the bargaining power of political parties in putting their support behind a presidential candidate will be determined by their success in legislative elections. Furthermore, the process for nominating presidential candidates is also determined by a threshold. Only political parties that hold 20 percent of the seats in Indonesia’s Parliament – or a coalition of parties that together hold that many – are allowed to nominate a presidential candidate. This is unwise. A threshold for nominating

A threshold for nominating presidential candidates should not exist in a presidential system.
presidential candidates should not exist in a presidential system.

The separation of the legislative and executive branches should mean that there are checks and balances between them, and one institution should not be overly dependent on the other. Furthermore, the direct election of a president means that the political mandate is from the people and should not be overly encumbered by the political dynamics of parliament. In this context, Indonesia’s historic simultaneous upcoming elections are important for our future. On a fundamental level, it is all about creating basic changes to strengthen our presidential system. Indonesia has committed itself to adopt a presidential system of governance as is enshrined in our Constitution. The electoral architecture should reflect this commitment. The results of elections should aim to help a government effectively perform its functions. 

The ‘threshold’ is irrelevant 

It seems that the hope of creating fundamental improvements to our presidential system would not be immediately fulfilled through simultaneous elections as long as the presidential threshold still exists. The 20 percent presidential threshold remains part of Law Number 7/2017 due to the internal political processes of the House of Representatives. 

But the truth is, the threshold is no longer relevant. While the Constitutional Court ruling does not eliminate the threshold, reasonably speaking, the simultaneous legislative and presidential elections have made it moot. More ironically, the continued implementation of the threshold for the upcoming elections was based on the 2014 election results. This is like using an already- used ticket for a sports event. Political parties that collectively have 20 percent of the seats in the House that were won in 2014 helped ensure the nominations of President Joko Widodo and challenger Prabowo Subianto. No one else really had a shot. In short, these political elites are using the 2014 legislative election results as a shortcut to the upcoming presidential election. They are exploiting people’s votes in a past legislative election for their respective 2019 presidential tickets. 

It is unjustifiable for a democratic country under a presidential system to use the results of a legislative election to determine who can run for president, because within the presidential system both legislative and executive bodies have received the same mandates directly from the people. 
Furthermore, people might want to split their votes for members of parliament and the president. Look at 2014. Though it won the legislative election, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) received far fewer votes than President Joko in the presidential election later that year, despite Joko’s status as one of the party’s top cadres. 

It is understandable that voters in 2014 were not fully behind PDI-P, even if they wanted Joko as their president. So shall we maintain our hope that the upcoming simultaneous elections will further empower Indonesia’s presidential system?


Bawono Kumoro is head of politics and government at The Habibie Center in Jakarta.

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