The key to understanding Indonesia’s upcoming elections? The Jokowi Effect.

March 17
Joko Widodo meeting U.S. Ambassador Scot Marciel, January 13, 2013. U.S. Embassy Jakarta, via Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/usembassyjakarta/8362692573/)
Joko Widodo meeting U.S. Ambassador Scot Marciel, Jan. 13, 2013. U.S. Embassy, Jakarta, via Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/usembassyjakarta/8362692573/)

Joshua Tucker: Continuing our series of Election Reports at The Monkey Cage, the following is a pre-election report on the forthcoming Indonesian elections from Cornell University political scientist Tom Pepinsky.

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Indonesians are gearing up for the fourth round of legislative elections since the fall of the authoritarian New Order regime in 1998. By any stretch of the matter, this is big news: After the United States and India, Indonesia is the third most populous democracy in the world. It is also one of the only consolidated democracies that is primarily Muslim — about a fifth of the world’s Muslims are Indonesians. The course of democratization there is one of the most interesting political stories of the past decade, yet one that receives little attention in the United States media.

Right now the big news in Indonesia is the long-anticipated announcement that Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo will enter the race for president. Widodo — universally known as “Jokowi” among Indonesians — is by some degree the most popular of the many candidates for presidency this fall, which include a series of retired generals, businesspeople, and party apparatchiks.

Part of what makes Jokowi so exciting to many Indonesians is his political story: even though he is the governor of Jakarta, he came to this position relatively recently, having made his political career as mayor of Solo, a smaller city in Central Java. Before that he was a local businessman. As mayor, Jokowi was widely credited for overseeing a range of local governance reforms in Solo, resisting corruption and streamlining the local business environment without alienating the masses (he won reelection with 90 percent of the vote in 2010). His folksy demeanor charms many Indonesians and foreigners alike, and he can be credibly portrayed as a relative outsider to national politics.

Yet rather than focus on his personal style, hands-on leadership, pragmatic outlook, and populist appeal, it may be more profitable to think through Jokowi’s implications for party politics in Indonesia. Here, Jokowi’s candidacy could be no less than transformative. But to understand how, we need to take a detour to understand party competition in this sprawling archipelago.

Political scientists have long been wary of multiparty presidentialism in democratic systems. Presidential systems feature a separation between legislative and executive branches, which means separate elections for the two. When there are high levels of party fractionalization in the legislature, this makes it difficult to form stable coalitions within the legislature, and very unlikely that the president will have a strong legislative ally in his or her own party. To get things done, the legislature must assemble a large coalition of small parties, and the president must almost certainly bring members of other parties into his or her cabinet, diluting executive independence and effectiveness without subjecting him or her to immediate partisan sanction, as in a parliamentary system.

As can be seen in the figure below, all of the parliaments since 1998 have been highly fractionalized. None of this makes for stable and coherent policymaking at the national level.

Indonesian Legislative Parties by Seats (Figure: Tom Pepinsky)
Indonesian Legislative Parties by Seats (Figure: Tom Pepinsky/The Monkey Cage)

True to form, democratic Indonesia is in some ways an ideal illustration of what happens in a multiparty presidential democracy. Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has had to govern since 2004 with a large and unwieldy cabinet drawing from many parties. Legislative coalitions are always oversized — meaning that they contain far more than a simple majority of the lawmakers — which is consistent with existing research that suggests that diverse, polarized, multiparty legislatures ought to yield big and oversized coalitions.

That said, the Indonesian case does not quite match the standard description of the dangers of multiparty presidentialism. Given the challenges of democratic consolidation, extreme inequality, weak rule of law, and the sheer human and physical diversity of Indonesia, national politics has actually been remarkably stable, with little room for immoderate parties. Indeed, rather than spinning out of control, party politics has tended in the opposite direction, toward “promiscuous powersharing,” where too much cooperation among too many parties erodes the ability of any one party to represent its supporters. On the whole, Yudhoyono remains fairly popular, but his second term especially is viewed as somewhat disappointing from the policymaking perspective. Many Americans may know Yudhoyono best from the report on his album of pop ballads from National Public Radio.

Here’s where Jokowi comes in. His meteoric rise does not have to signify that he’s a new kind of politician, untainted by corruption or backroom deal-making. (Back in 2004, that was the hope for Yudhoyono, too. Observers also note that Jokowi could never have risen to his position without getting involved in the messy business of money politics.) Instead, it could help to inject some more competition into Indonesian politics by threatening the status quo of party competition and forcing a reorganization of the party landscape.

On this note, the most important thing is that unlike Yudhoyono before him, and unlike most other politicians with national aspirations, Jokowi did not form a new party to contest the election. Instead, he is joining the established Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), one of the only parties to have remained in opposition under Yudhoyono. PDI-P’s programmatic focus has been weakened in the past decade, but Jokowi’s populist appeal — which is consistent with PDI-P’s nationalist and populist heritage — could help to revitalize it. By joining PDI-P, Jokowi also does not have to build a party organization from scratch, or invent some kind of ideology or platform for his “movement.”

This makes the Jokowi-PDI-P alliance a strong one. In turn, because legislative elections precede presidential elections, PDI-P can use the Jokowi candidacy to build its legislative strength. If the PDI-P manages to get 25 percent of the vote in legislative elections, or 20 percent of the seats in parliament, then under Indonesia’s electoral laws PDI-P can nominate Jokowi for the presidency without seeking a coalition from other parties. That could in turn incentivize a reorganization of the remaining parties to create something less fractious as an opposition. One can start to discern the roots of a more coherent and competitive party system under these circumstances, one less amenable to multipartism and more to effective presidential leadership.

There are lots of “ifs” in this scenario. It is a long shot, simply because the structural constraints are really strong — in a country with lax party discipline and fluid partisan attachments, it is unlikely that power-seeking retired generals and businessmen will give up the parties that they have spent so much money to create. Yet if there is a Jokowi effect, it may have little to do with what Jokowi himself does as candidate or president, and more about how his candidacy threatens the existing political landscape.

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