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Plan to dump local elections riles Indonesians

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President-elect Joko Widodo, center left, gestures while his vice president-elect, Jusuf Kalla, looks on before speaking to reporters at their transition headquarters in Jakarta on Sept. 15.   © Reuters

SOLO, Indonesia -- Two months on from the election that made Joko Widodo president-elect, posters and billboards backing the local hero are still a common sight around this provincial Central Java city.

     Jokowi, as the president-elect is widely known, started his political career here in 2005, when he was elected mayor in Indonesia's first direct elections for heads of local governments.

     On Sept. 25, national parliamentarians in Jakarta will vote on proposals to ditch direct elections and revert to the former system, under which local leaders were chosen by regional parliaments.

     The drive to abandon elections is being led by the Great Indonesia Movement Party, known as Gerindra, which is fronted by Prabowo Subianto, the losing candidate in the July presidential poll. Gerindra claims that local elections have raised costs and encouraged corruption and electoral violence. But critics say the real goal is to deprive outsiders, like Widodo, who 10 years ago was selling furniture in this municipality of 500,000, of a route into politics.

     The proposition has provoked widespread criticism. Earlier this month, 70 mayors and other local government heads joined a protest in Jakarta. A recent opinion poll by the Indonesian Survey Circle, a political consultancy, put popular support for directly elected heads of local government at 81%.

     That view is widespread in Solo, also known as Surakarta, where Widodo's ascent to the presidency began with a widely lauded seven-year tenure as mayor. "It is better to elect through the people," said Abdullah Aa, the local leader of the Hanura party.

     The party backed Widodo's candidacy and is likely to be allocated seats in the cabinet after the president-elect is inaugurated in October. Widodo would still be in his second term as mayor of Solo had he not been elected governor of Jakarta in 2012. "His job (was) not finished here when he left," said Hernawan Tri Wahyudi, a teacher.

     Indonesia's so-called "Big Bang" decentralization was implemented in 2001, doubling regional spending and transferring around two-thirds of the government workforce from Jakarta, according to a World Bank study. Long purse strings and a decentralized polity make for heady mix: Elected local government heads are often more prominent and influential than national parliamentarians from the same area.

     Following Widodo's lead, a number of elected local and regional leaders are emerging as potential national level politicians. They include Ganjar Pranowo, governor of Central Java, and Tri Rismaharini, mayor of Surabaya, Indonesia's second biggest city.

     H. Haryadi Suyuti, mayor of Yogyakarta, a historic city less than an hour's drive from Solo, would not be drawn on his national ambitions in an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review but confirmed his support for direct local elections.

     "Most people will be angry if this change passes," said Bonar Tigor Naipospos, vice-chairman of the Setara Institute, an Indonesian think tank. "They will see their rights as being hijacked by political parties."

     Gerindra insists that the main aim is to reduce corruption. Indonesia's Corruption Eradication Commission, known by its Indonesian initials KPK, has several recent investigations involving heads of local government.

     Fadli Zon, Gerindra's deputy chairman, said Sept. 13 that local corruption is being downplayed by Indonesia's media. He claimed there are 300 other corrupt election districts.

     Critics say reverting to the former appointment system would worsen corruption, not diminish it.

     "I prefer if people vote for the mayor," said Muflihah Muhid, a 54-year-old Yogyakarta housewife, "because if the mayor is chosen by the (local parliament), there will be political money paid between them."

     Elizabeth Pisani, author of an acclaimed travelogue called Indonesia, Etc, wrote scathingly of the old system, which she investigated extensively. "Local parliaments are small and often stuffed with scions of large local clans whose members expect great things of their representative in government," Pisani wrote. "Parliamentarians used their power of appointment not to oversee the executive, as their mandate demanded, but to wring from the district head jobs and contracts for their supporters, as well as lots of money."

     Some critics say a decision to abandon local elections could prompt a re-evaluation of Indonesia's international image as one of Southeast Asia's most robust democracies. It would be a backward step, to the days of Suharto's dictatorship, Bonar said.

     Suharto, who in 1967 wrangled power from Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, remained president until 1998 with strong backing from the military.

     Whether the measure becomes law may depend on horse-trading over jobs in Widodo's cabinet.

     Widodo has spoken against the proposed measure, as has the incumbent president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose Democratic Party is thought to be seeking one of two cabinet posts in Widodo's government. If Yudhoyono's party chooses to back Widodo on this issue, the proposal to abandon local elections will be defeated in parliament.

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