Building U.S.-Indonesia Mutual Understanding Since 1994

Honorable Sarwono Kusumaatmadja

USINDO 10th Anniversary Lecture Series

Honorable Sarwono Kusumaatmadja
Representative from Jakarta,  Council of Regional Representatives (DPD)

Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, a newly elected representative from Jakarta of the recently formed Council of Regional Representatives or Dewan Perwakilan Daerah (DPD), spoke at length about the presidential election and the new council’s role in government and politics.  The new council is a directly elected group that serves more in an advisory function and does not parallel the parliament (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat or DPR) in terms of legislation.  The council’s primary duty is to ensure that parliament operates in the peoples’ best interests. Although the council has no veto power, some politicians and media writers forecast that it will eventually be given powers similar to the US Senate, thus allowing it to serve in a checks and balances role.

Sarwono commented on the principal features of the recent presidential election (first round) that foreshadow what the future may hold for the Indonesian government.  He said the election was successful because of the lack of violence, the citizens’ ability to speak up, and tighter room for maneuver of the elites who had unfairly affected popular votes in the past.  But there were also disappointments like the public’s unfamiliarity with the complex voting process, especially true in the April legislative elections, mistakes by the election commission (KPU) regarding the double punched ballots, and ballot errors, such as one legislative candidate whose picture was misplaced on the voting paper.

Sarwono rhetorically asked, “What was the single most significant feature of the elections?”  In his opinion it was the direct election of representatives from the national to the local level (elections for provincial governors, regents and district heads are to be held in 2006).  The results of the first two rounds of this year’s elections showed that a direct vote challenges political parties, promotes politicians’ accountability, and forces officials to stay in closer touch with their constituents.  Direct elections promise to transform the nature of government, especially as recent data have shown that Indonesia’s political parties are among the least reformed groups.  As Sarwono pointed out, the direct election of officials should place pressure on the party organizations so in time they will be forced to reform.

In regard to the current presidential election race, Sarwono observed that, despite who the new president is, she or he will not have majority support in parliament.   Therefore, the candidates will begin forming “soft” coalitions with parties and parliamentary factions before the final round election on September 20, but he feels that alliances formed before then may not be a reliable indicator of future performance and may be transitory.  Sarwono stated that candidates need to be skillful in forming alliances with civil society groups also; with neither candidate having majority support in parliament, they will have to reach out for popular support that can help them after the elections when coalitions begin to disintegrate.

The July 2004 election provided Indonesia with several important lessons, according to Sarwono.  It showed that the people do not vote primarily along party lines, but rather on the basis of personality and the candidates’ track records.  Smear campaigns, where one candidate bad-mouths another, and squandering money on campaigns did not prove effective.  This election showed how ideology would begin to change as direct elections force moderation upon politicians, and officials will have to begin dealing with grassroots problems like access to education and the local economic issues.  The current situation in which lame duck politicians in the DPR are attempting to enact interest-based bills will  change as a result of pressure from civil society organizations and as the media plays a more effective role in reporting on regional and national politics.  Most of all, he stressed the importance of empowering the electorate to elect candidates whom they believe will deliver results, although there is a risk of popular dissatisfaction setting in after two years or so if the people’s representatives do not measure up in terms of performance.

Given all of these factors, Sarwono asked, which candidate has what it will take to win?  He felt that Megawati has a good chance as she is the incumbent and is gaining a reputation as an “old dog” with experience who is learning “new tricks.”  SBY on the other hand risks losing his new-found appeal as people take a hard second look at him. Sarwono feels SBY needs to be bolder, effectively fend off smear tactics used against him and his running mate Jusuf Kalla, more clearly enunciate his platform and goals for the future, and announce a largely technocratic and well-respected cabinet before the September 20 poll.  In the end, “Whoever loses, should lose… and the winner will have captured the hearts and minds of the Indonesian people with new assertive politics.”

Q: What are key issues voters are looking at in electing a president?

A: The single outstanding issue is unemployment.  Behind that would be security issues such as the crime rate and desire for safer neighborhoods.  Corruption is particularly big in local elections, while education is a top priority for the more elite population.  Local people want a bigger say in education such as money for textbooks and school fees.

Q: Will there be significant policy differences depending on which candidate wins?
A: There will be definite style differences such as quality of communication, how the army is controlled, and the way the police system is run.  Neither candidate has a specific program to reduce unemployment or a stance on education.  The platforms are not concrete as of right now, but hopefully the candidates will come out with stronger stands on the merits and not rely on ‘horse-trading.’

Q: Will the direct election of officials open up new opportunities for “money politics?”

A: Sarwono pays his staff out of pocket so, yes, you have to be wealthy to be a politician.  Politicians will eventually have to find alternate sources of money to support their staff and it is necessary to emphasize constituent services and the establishment of local offices in the future [with proper budgetary support].

Q: As a former Golkar party member, what role will the party play in the election?

A: Golkar has some of the most experienced politicians and they will continue to be important because of this experience.

Q: What will Wiranto do now that he is out of the presidential race?

A: He will have a new and different political career.  Wiranto didn’t win because he lacked widespread Golkar support.  Sarwono said most of Golkar supported SBY;  Wiranto was too optimistic that he could become one of the two finalists in the presidential race.

Q: Will foreign policy play any role in the forthcoming campaign?

A: No, that is more an “upper crust” issue.  Voters are looking for concrete policies on issues like unemployment and education.  Foreign policy is primarily a Jakarta issue, not an Indonesia-wide issue.

Q: The Golkar leadership will change in October.  How will this occur?

A: Golkar will have a national conference in October that will have been preceded by local meetings, at which time a new national chairman will be elected.  There are several candidates vying for chairman, but it is probable there will be a generational change within the party to a younger leader.  However, there is a chance the election of a national chairman may be postponed until next year to allow more time for politicking, but local party units would not favor a deferral.

Q: Are new politicians emerging and, if so, who are they?

A: Yes, there are many.  They are mostly from NGOs, think tanks, universities, and the PAN and Golkar parties.  “The real question is can these new candidates survive in politics?  The answer is not necessarily, because thinking about becoming a politician and acting like a politician are different.”

Q: How will SBY and Megawati deal with the military differently?

A: SBY outlined some new military reforms and, if elected, his defense minister will define military policy.  But really to guess what he will do, we would need to know who his defense minister will be.  It may be that SBY would use the military only as his electoral base, but both SBY and Megawati need to make a deal with the army in order to address the armed forces’ problems.  They need to offer a reform package with a promise to fulfill the budgetary gap.  The military knows it no longer can interfere in civilian politics, but it still needs help with its own problems, mainly providing upkeep for its troops.

Q: What is the make-up of the DPD and what will it do in light of the limitations on its powers?

A: The DPD is made up of mostly newcomers to politics:  27 are women, 27 are under the age of 40, 3 are former governors, 2 are former administrators, 1 is from the army and 1 is a policeman, and 25 are Golkar members.  Many of them were elected for unknown or purely local reasons.  As far as what the council will do considering its limitations, he commented: “It will act as a circus manager, taming the wild beast, parliament.”  He said the DPD will help to work through problems between the parliament and president, represent the people, and work with the media.  He did not exclude the possibility that over time there would be an effort to pass a constitutional amendment giving the DPD the right to veto and initiate legislation – powers that were blocked by the PDI-P because of fears that the DPD as a separate chamber representing the regions would erode the unitary state and lead to federalism.

Q: What are your concerns in environmental issues?

A: The environment takes a beating because there is a breakdown in the judiciary and the legal prosecution of offenses.  Local army units, the police and business interests take advantage of the lack of an effective law enforcement and judicial regime.  However, these shortcomings can be overcome with strong political pressure on the new government and commitment because there is a lot of local support for more effective environmental protection.  However, on a national basis the public does not demand this because environmental protection is not seen as a top priority.