Running a national election in Indonesia is a big exercise, with about 120 million people voting for thousands of positions in local and regional government, as well as both houses of the national legislature. So it’s not really surprising that results from last Wednesday’s election aren’t due to be released until early next month.

But the results obtained from a “quick count”, sampling 2000 polling places, are regarded as reasonably authoritative and have been published widely over the last few days. And they were used as the basis for analysis at a very interesting seminar held at Melbourne University last night.

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Indonesia’s party system can look bewildering. As Asia Institute academic Thomas Reuter explained, an attempt has been made to thin out the number of parties by imposing quite onerous requirements for the registration of new parties: they have to maintain branches and offices across the country, adding further expense to what are already very costly election campaigns, and hence increasing the role of big money.

But it hasn’t done much to rationalise the system. Although only 12 parties were registered, 10 of them exceeded the 3.5% threshold for representation — one more than in 2009. Voting is proportional in multi-member districts, so although no results for seats have been released, they will probably mirror the percentages of vote reasonably well (as they did last time).

The relatively even spread of votes was the big surprise of the election. A Roy Morgan poll taken in late March tipped the three largest parties to win 68% of the vote between them, but in fact they managed only 46%.

Most of that shortfall was due to the disappointing performance of the Indonesian Democratic Party — Struggle (PDI-P), the party of former president Megawati Sukarnoputri and current presidential front-runner Joko Widodo (widely known as Jokowi). Although it still came out ahead, its 19.2% was well down on what polls had been predicting.

Another of last night’s panellists, La Trobe lecturer Dirk Tomsa, tried to explain why the so-called “Jokowi effect” failed to materialise. He suggested that the nature of the electoral system, in which voters pick individual candidates on the party lists, in a way somewhat reminiscent of Tasmania, tends to make campaigns centre on local candidates (based largely on patronage) rather than on national issues or personalities.

Asia Institute senior research fellow Dave McRae, who observed the election in Surabaya, confirmed that impression, pointing out that there is often cut-throat competition between candidates from the same party, some of whom may stake out positions quite different from party policy. For that matter, he suggested, Jokowi himself may have an agenda that is not unequivocally the same as that of his party.

The other aspect that surprised most observers was the strong performance of the four parties broadly described as “Islamist” — the PKB, PKS, PAN and PPP. They collected just under 30% of the vote between them, up from about 24% in 2009. To nominate a candidate for the presidential election requires a party or coalition to have either 25% of the popular vote or 20% of the seats, so the Islamic parties will be able to get someone on the ballot if they can agree on a contender.

But the Islamic parties are distinctive in being based on some sort of ideological principle. Most of the leading parties are basically vehicles for the ambition of a particular presidential candidate. The Democratic Party of incumbent president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (which fell to fourth place with 9.4%) set the pattern, but others include Gerindra with 11.8% (run by General Prabowo Subianto), Nasdem with 6.7% (media tycoon Surya Paloh) and Hanura with 5.1% (General Wiranto).

And then there’s Golkar, the former ruling party under the Suharto dictatorship, which placed second with 15% of the vote. Tomsa described it aptly as a zombie party, which continues to show life despite being repeatedly pronounced dead. But its presidential candidate, Aburizal Bakrie, is widely regarded as unelectable, in part due to his company’s role in the Lapindo mud flow disaster.

Vanessa Hearman, a human rights expert, argued that Indonesian politics still exhibited a failure to come to terms with the crimes of the Suharto era, and that the strong performance of Golkar and Gerindra was a disturbing sign in this direction. She also connected this with signs of voter disenchantment, such as the further fall in turnout to 65.7%, although one might equally regard that as suggesting some sort of return to normality.

The system embodies a degree of tension between discontent with national corruption on the one hand and local patronage and pork-barrelling on the other. Voters are looking for a “clean” alternative, represented in their different ways by both Jokowi and the Islamic parties, but they also depend on local politicians to call in favours and get things done.

There was general agreement that Jokowi remains a strong favourite for the presidency, although his star has been tarnished slightly. But the certainty is that whoever takes the top job will be well short of a legislative majority, and coalition-building will remain the order of the day.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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