In Indonesia, Stage Is Set for Battle Over Future of Democracy

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New York Times by Joe Cochrane

October 1, 2014

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/02/world/asia/indonesia-joko-widodo-parliament-opposition.html

JAKARTA, Indonesia — The Indonesian Parliament, under the control of emboldened political forces opposed to President-elect Joko Widodo, convened for a new five-year term on Wednesday, setting the stage for a long-term battle over the future of democracy in Southeast Asia’s most populous country.

The opposition bloc is led by Prabowo Subianto — a former army general who lost a bitterly contested presidential election to Mr. Joko in July — and controls 68 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives, the main legislative body.

Mr. Prabowo, 62, was once a son-in-law of Suharto, Indonesia’s late authoritarian president, whose military-backed regime ruled the country for 32 years until he was forced to resign amid pro-democracy demonstrations in 1998.

Despite Mr. Prabowo’s election loss three months ago, his “Red and White Coalition” — a reference to the colors of the Indonesian flag — continues to exert its influence, including orchestrating the passage last Friday of 11th-hour legislation in the previous Parliament that eliminated direct elections for mayors, district chiefs and provincial governors.

This week, incoming opposition lawmakers raised the notion of amending the Indonesian Constitution to eliminate direct presidential elections and giving the power to appoint the country’s president back to a legislative body that Suharto had firmly controlled and used to perpetuate his hold on power.

Indonesians began directly electing their presidents in 2004 and provincial-level leaders in 2005 as part of a political and economic decentralization that followed Suharto’s ouster, devolving power away from Jakarta, the Indonesian capital.

Led by Mr. Prabowo’s Gerindra party, the opposition bloc includes Golkar, which was Suharto’s political vehicle during his rule, and four other parties that backed Mr. Prabowo’s presidential run.

Mr. Joko, who will be sworn in on Oct. 20, was a popular mayor who rose to national political stardom after being elected governor of Jakarta in 2012. A former furniture exporter born in a slum in Central Java Province, Mr. Joko, 53, is viewed as a success story of decentralization because he will be the first president in Indonesian history not to be linked to the Suharto-era political elite or to have been an army general.

Philips J. Vermonte, head of the politics and international relations department at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, said Mr. Prabowo and his supporters, still stung by their election defeat, were determined to “recentralize” power back into the hands of the political elite in the capital.

“All these achievements we’ve had, including with fighting corruption, were all part of the reform movement after Suharto,” he said. “These changes that Prabowo is trying to do, people feel they are trying to bring us back to square one.”

Despite the country’s successful democratic transition, analysts said, a pattern of political patronage, corruption and money politics that emerged after Suharto’s resignation still holds sway.

On the eve of the July presidential election, parties aligned with Mr. Prabowo passed regulations making it harder for the country’s independent Corruption Eradication Commission to investigate lawmakers for graft.

“There is a stagnation of the democracy process going on in Indonesia,” said Dewi Aryani, a departing lawmaker from Mr. Joko’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle. “We must think this through together.”

The departing president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who came under fire after his governing Democratic Party staged a walkout before last week’s vote on direct elections, thus handing victory to Mr. Prabowo’s bloc, has said that he will issue a presidential decree to block the law.

This would, in effect, be a temporary veto, forcing the new Parliament to vote on the issue again within three months.

Yet Mr. Joko will face more immediate problems given the strength of the opposition, whose members have made no secret of their plans to try to thwart his administration at every turn.

Wednesday’s opening session was limited to procedural matters, but the opposition is already set to control the legislative agenda. Parties backing Mr. Prabowo’s candidacy orchestrated parliamentary changes that eliminated the automatic awarding of the post of speaker to the winning party from the April 9 national general elections.

Mr. Joko’s party, known as the P.D.I.P., placed first, but given that his opponents control the new Parliament, the next speaker may come from Mr. Prabowo’s camp.

Alvin Lie, a political consultant and former lawmaker, said Mr. Joko might be compelled to offer incentives to political parties aligned with Mr. Prabowo to defect, including positions in his cabinet, in order to prevent his agenda from being blocked.

Mr. Joko has in recent weeks resisted linking political support to cabinet positions.

“At the end of the day, the P.D.I.P. will have no friends in the Parliament, and in politics, unless you get 51 percent of the votes in elections, you need friends,” Mr. Lie said.

“It doesn’t mean just cabinet seats,” he said. “A coalition can mean more, like how you share power in the Parliament, how you work in regional governments, how you formulate policies and the execution of policy.”

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