With weak legislative support comes threat of ineffective govt

Ahmad Khoirul Umam

The results of the quick counts have shown that the 2014 legislative election did not produce a great victory for the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). In the preliminary estimations, a number of polling agencies mentioned that the PDI-P was only able to garner about 18 percent, very far from its elites’ expectations of up to 30 percent. It did not even surpass the Democratic Party’s achievements in the 2009 election of 20.85 percent.

Based on the experience of the administration under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a lack of political support in the House of Representatives will determine the quality and effectiveness of government. The stronger the support, the more effective its performance. Conversely, the weaker the support the more vulnerable the government is to instability and ineffectiveness.

Recent experience also shows that the electability of a presidential candidate would be nothing without strong support from the legislature. Some researchers may say that the current administration’s fundamental problem is in the President’s unassertive leadership style. The scholar Greg Fealy stated that during his second term, Yudhoyono’s leadership style became more cautious and aloof, rather than reformist and risk-taking. This unassertive leadership style potentially inhibits an effective government in running its programs and development strategies, including priority in combating corruption within governmental bodies.

Personality could be among the determining factors that influence leadership quality. But another factor is political support from the House of Representatives. Although the ruling party may be politically aligned with other parties in the legislature, the character of the coalition is relatively liquid, temporary and influenced by short-term interests. This makes it difficult to distinguish between pro-government political supporters and the opposition since the pro-government parties also often attack and weaken government policies, rather than protect them from the opposition.

Despite their pledge to support the government, pro-government parties have not allowed the President to control them through a permanent coalition. As a result, the government has been powerless in the face of attacks at the House, leading to infighting within the coalition. This what researchers referred to as the anomaly of a presidential system.

The liquid and fragile coalition also impacts on the cabinet. Ideally, cabinet members should work together. They should complement each other when running the government’s programs and policies. If they worked in tandem, ministers may have set up a comprehensive road map to address the country’s problems. In contrast, ministers from a partisan background tend to maintain loyalty to their respective political parties rather than to the president.

Given the weak political support of the ruling party, it has accommodated some other party supporters into the Cabinet. Even though partisan ministers must report to the president according to the Constitution, the president often loses his control over the ministers. They are protected by their political parties and their representatives at the House. Therefore, when the ministers are allegedly involved in corruption, the president is constrained by his own ‘accommodative politics’, leading to face-saving strategies to avoid confrontation with political rivals, especially the non-reformist elements.

The 2014 legislative election seems to have produced a similar political configuration to 2009. The PDI-P’s 19 percent share of the vote would not secure its move to win Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo as its presidential candidate, making a coalition inevitable.

However, that would be very risky; people would gradually realize that the Jokowi effect is not as strong as previously imagined. Even if he did end up being president, his administration would also highly depend on the parties supporting the coalition. With the slight difference in votes compared to its rivals, the PDI-P would almost certainly find an effective permanent coalition in the House difficult. Since our parties’ political behavior has shifted from ideology-based to ‘radical pragmatism’, through negotiations and compromises, the character of the next coalition would be similar to the current administration, which is liquid, temporary and strongly influenced by short-term interests.

If that happens, the 2014 election will merely produce a politically weak reformist government again, where the government’s performance will frequently be disrupted by political maneuvers in the House, either through attacks from the opposition or defiance from the coalition parties. The situation could potentially trap the country in a longer democratic transition marked with intensive interaction, confrontation, competition and compromising interests among apparatus, politicians and others, constraining efforts at good governance.

Vested interest groups would have considerable opportunity to isolate and neutralize weak reformers though political tactics or by criminalizing or bullying reformist actors, even driving them out of their government positions. The bullied and defeated reformers may embolden the vested interests opposed to reform prospects with the help of a mutually supportive network of collusive relationships between officials, politicians and businesspeople.

In such situations, the ruling political party’s power and capability to protect the government from political rivals will be tested. Their integrity and proficiency in succeeding the government’s programs and public policies will determine the success and failure of the next government. Conversely, if the government remains weak in dealing with the vested interests, either from the opposition or the internal coalition, Indonesia will take a much longer time to consolidate its elements to achieve a substantive democracy ‘ rather than a merely procedural and symbolic democracy.

This opinion article was firstly published in the Jakarta Post, April 12, 2014.

The writer, Ahmad Khoirul Umam, is Managing Director of Paramadina Public Policy Institute.