JAKARTA -- Local elections will be held simultaneously across Indonesia for the first time on Wednesday, after the issue of whether to directly elect mayors and other local government leaders spurred ructions, recriminations and walkouts in the national parliament last year.
Back then, parties supporting President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, who had just been elected to office, voted to retain the decade-old system of direct local elections, but the parties backing the losing presidential candidate, Prabowo Subianto, successfully voted to scrap it.
Given that Indonesia had just elected Widodo, a former governor of Jakarta and mayor of Surakarta, as president, the assault on voters' rights prompted a massive public outcry. The backlash was strong enough to not only prompt then-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to issue a decree overturning the vote, but convinced parliament to boost the status of local elections.
On Wednesday, 269 contests -- for mayors and other local government leadership positions -- are being held across the sprawling Indonesian archipelago. The poll replaces the old, staggered system, when local elections were staged individually, with 1,027 elections separately held between 2005 and 2014, according to the Habibie Center, a Jakarta-based research organization.
"There are 365 days in the year, there are more than 540 election locations," Arief Budiman, a commissioner at the KPU, the Indonesian election commission, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "Before, we were constantly monitoring another election."
The unwieldy nature of Indonesian elections owes much to the vast size of the country, which includes 6,000 inhabited islands, with mountainous jungle terrain on large islands such as Kalimantan, Papua and Sumatra.
There are plans to further streamline local elections over the coming decade, according to Budiman. Among the options are holding polls for regional and city parliaments on the same day as elections for mayors and local government heads. In 2014, regional parliament elections took place on the same day as voting for the national parliament.
Politics and duty
Although Indonesians were angered by the proposed annulment of their right to directly elect mayors and local government leaders, the upcoming local polls are drawing little interest among voters.
"Voters will act out of a sense of duty on Dec. 9, not because they have been excited by the elections," said Bonar Tigor Naisposos, vice chair of the Setara Institute, a political research organization.
Campaigning has been muted compared with the raucous, crowded and often acrimonious public rallies that characterized the 2014 national elections, with candidates this time mostly going door-to-door or speaking on TV.
"You don't see many ideas, many initiatives," said Bonar Tigor Naisposos, in contrast to the July 2014 presidential contest, when Widodo campaigned as a "man of the people" and reformer against Subianto's strongman rhetoric and threats to make Indonesia less democratic.
However, a few local elections have grabbed attention. Surabaya Mayor Tri Rismahrini has risen to national prominence, much like Widodo did when he was governor of Jakarta. Widodo is Indonesia's first president from outside the old political class, a beneficiary of the local election system that allowed such newcomers to flourish.
Parties supporting the scrapping of local elections have cited statistics claiming that 321 mayors and other elected local officials had been charged with corruption. Many Indonesians regarded the allegations as a means for parliamentarians to preserve elite politics and stymie the emergence of another Jokowi.
Candidates convicted of corruption are running in 25 of the 269 local contests, according to the Association for Elections and Democracy (Perludem), an election monitoring group. There are also concerns that vote buying and "money politics" seen during the April 2014 national parliamentary elections could re-emerge.
"The crucial time is the silent period, the three days before voting day," said Titi Anggraini, director of Perludem.
Academic surveys suggested that around 40% of the nearly 200 million Indonesian voters were offered some form of material or financial inducement during the 2014 parliamentary elections.
There has been little sign of vote buying so far this year, although there is speculation it could occur at the last minute in an effort by candidates to be foremost in voters' minds and avoid being outbid by rivals. "The 'dawn attack' is a worry," said Bonar Tigor Naisposos, using the local term for early morning vote buying on election day.
Money nonetheless plays an important role, since candidates cannot run without party backing and campaigning is expensive.
Ward Berenschot, a researcher at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies, traveled recently to central Kalimantan, where he found that regional candidates either work in the lucrative local palm oil sector or had what he called "tight links to the industry."
"They paid large sums of money to political parties to back their candidatures," Berenschot said.
If allegations of corruption or vote buying occur on Dec. 9, it could prompt renewed calls to end local elections.
Megawati Sukarnoputri, the former president who still leads the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDIP, said recently that local elections impede economic development. "Now, every presidential and regional head candidate makes their vision and mission for only five years," she said. "There is no continuity after five years when the new leaders are elected."
Megawati's misgivings come despite her party voting to retain direct local elections in 2014, and despite the fact that Widodo ran for mayor of Surakarta as a PDIP candidate in 2005.
The Freeport factor
Parliamentary opposition to direct local elections, based on corruption allegations, has been undermined by the fact that the current parliamentary speaker is being accused of soliciting shares from U.S. mining company Freeport.
"It is clear that the public is overwhelmingly in favor of direct local and national elections," said Andrew Thornley of the Asia Foundation. "Arguments against at this point are unlikely to gain much, if any, traction."
Regardless of public interest in the actual vote, political parties are clearly feeling a keen sense of local rivalry. One of the parties that voted in 2014 to abolish the local elections is now "ready" for this round, Aburizal Bakrie, a scandal-tainted businessman who heads Golkar, the second-biggest parliamentary party, told the Nikkei Asian Review.
"How many seats we win will depend on different factors on the ground in each of the localities."
Hasto Kristiyanto, a senior member of the PDIP, said his party -- the biggest in Indonesia's national parliament after it won almost a fifth of seats in 2014 national elections -- was aiming to win "at least 50%" of the local elections.