A crucial time: Parliamentary and presidential elections are set for 2014

With the year ahead set to see the much-anticipated election of a new president and new national and regional legislatures, 2014 will likely be a time of great political activity in Indonesia. Some 15 parties (three just local to Aceh) will contest for the votes of approximately 175m potential voters, 67m of whom will be casting a ballot for the first time. The elections may also give rise to a new impetus for reform, as the country debates a range of issues – from how to tackle corruption to the role of religion in politics. Underscoring many of these debates is also the question of how best to manage rapid economic growth and the social changes it engenders, as Indonesia becomes increasingly globalised and urbanised, with a surging population and greater standing and responsibility both within the region and the world at large. In facing these challenging issues though, the country can draw on a growing, modern tradition of democracy – as well as on an ancient history of compromise and consensus.

That Was Then

Forming part of an active volcanic arc, the country is known both for its richly fertile soils – and for its periodic natural disasters. In more recent times too, it has become known as South-east Asia’s largest nation and one of the region’s most vibrant economies.

Indonesia consists of some 17,508 islands, inhabited by around 247m people, according to figures from the World Bank. More than half of the population lives on one of the archipelago’s smaller islands – Java – with the capital, Jakarta, accounting for approximately 10m of those citizens.

The archipelago’s early history saw the spread of the Dongson culture, which originated in Vietnam and southern China around 1000 BCE, to Indonesia. The culture brought with it irrigated rice-growing techniques and animal husbandry skills.

During the 7th century CE the Hindu-Buddhist empire of Sriwijaya rose on the island of Sumatra and became a major trade power, controlling most of the trade in South-east Asia at the time due to its location on the Strait of Melaka, while the Buddhist Sailendra dynasty and the Hindu Mataram dynasty thrived in central Java between the 8th and 10th centuries. In the following centuries, a series of kingdoms rose and fell on the archipelago.

Declaring Independence

Yet while the islands of this country are dotted with the remains of ancient civilisations, Indonesia itself only came into being less than 70 years ago. Symbolically, that was when, on August 17, 1945, a group of Indonesian nationalists on the island of Java declared independence from the Netherlands.

The Dutch, Indonesia’s former colonial masters, had first arrived in 1602, expanding their empire over the centuries that followed. It was not until the 1930s that Aceh finally came under Dutch tutelage and the current borders were established.

The Second World War changed the balance of power in Asia, however, first via the conquering Japanese, who took control of what was the Dutch East Indies in a rapid campaign, vanquishing myths of European superiority. This gave impetus to a wave of nationalism throughout South-east Asia.

On August 17, 1945 then, with the Japanese still in occupation and before the Dutch had returned, several of Indonesia’s nationalists gathered in Jakarta to declare independence. They included Sukarno and Mohammed Hatta, who became Indonesia’s first president and vice-president, respectively.

The new state was given five basic principles for its foundation – known as Pancasila. These are still the ruling state philosophy today, and include belief in the unity of God; in a just and civilised humanity; in a united Indonesia; in democracy guided by the inner wisdom of unanimity arising from representative deliberation; and social justice.

The precepts, rights and freedoms of Pancasila are embodied in the constitutional and legal system, and derive from the traditions and customs of the Indonesian people. The 1945 Constitution of the country is based upon Pancasila.

The Dutch would not give up easily, however. Armed conflict spread across Indonesia between nationalists and returning Dutch forces, with more killed in the country during that conflict than during the fighting there in the Second World War.

Finally, on December 27, 1949, under UN and US pressure, the Dutch transferred sovereignty of the archipelago to the new, Republic of the United States of Indonesia (RUSI) – although the Netherlands retained West Papua (then Dutch New Guinea) until 1963. In August 1950 though, Sukarno declared RUSI would be replaced by a unitary, Republic of Indonesia (RI), with a new constitution. The first parliamentary elections were held in 1955, when Sukarno’s Indonesian National Party (PNI) came first, though without a majority. Also making a strong showing was the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), while Islamist parties had widespread support as well.

Islam had first come to Indonesia in the 8th century CE, spreading to become the dominant religion in Java and Sumatra by the end of the 16th century and in all the other islands except Bali by the end of the 18th. Bali remains a majority Hindu island, while animism and Christianity are strong forces in certain areas, such as Kalimantan, Maluku, Papua and Sulawesi. Currently, approximately 86% of the Indonesian population is Muslim, 10% Christian and the rest either follow Hinduism or other faiths.

Two major Islamic organisations exist – the Sunni, modernist Muhammadiyya and larger, traditionalist National Union (NU). Both organisations engage in social and educational activities, although Muhammadiyya did make a foray into backing the Islamist National Mandate Party (PAN) in the 2000s, a move it has recently backed away from.

In a Cold War world, Sukarno’s Indonesia was one in which the president attempted to pull the country’s nationalist, communist and Islamist strands together – a daunting and ultimately unsuccessful ambition. This led, however, to his proclamation of “Guided Democracy” in 1957, with seats in the Cabinet for the PNI, PKI and other parties. In 1959, Sukarno followed this, however, by abrogating the 1950 constitution, replacing the elected parliament with one appointed by the president and with a single, National Front party established.

Behind this now authoritarian state was a delicate balancing act between the army, the PKI and the Islamic groups. This eventually unravelled in 1965 though, when a series of coups and counter-coups led to a takeover by the military, led by Major General Suharto, and a nationwide massacre of the PKI and its suspected sympathisers.

Under Suharto, a new era, know as the “New Order”, began. Indonesia experienced rapid economic growth under the rule of Suharto’s Golkar Party, up until the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98. The country expanded territorially with the invasion of East Timor in 1975. In addition, Suharto implemented a transmigration programme, resettling mainly Muslim citizens from the islands of Java and Sumatra to less populated islands – later sometimes leading to violent ethnic and religious-based clashes.

By 1996, support for Suharto had begun to erode, with the financial crash that followed leading to rioting and calls for his resignation. Suharto finally resigned in May 1998, and was replaced by the vice-president, Jusuf Habibie.

This saw the beginning of the Reformasi period and the return to democracy. Elections were held in 1999, with the largest party becoming the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P), led by Sukarno’s daughter, Megawati Sukarnoputri. With the PDI-P unable to form a majority, however, the new parliament elected Abdurrahman Wahid, known as Gus Dur, president, with Sukarnoputri as vice-president. He was ousted in 2001 following major protests, with Sukarnoputri then taking over as president until 2004. Elections in that year saw Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (known as SBY) assumed the office of president. SBY then won the 2009 election, completing his maximum allowed two terms. Now, in 2014, the electoral field is once more open.

Constituion & Electoral Change

Under the current constitution, the head of state, commander-in-chief of the armed forces and chief executive authority is the president. Since 2004, the office has been directly elected every five years with a maximum of two terms allowed per incumbent. The winner of the presidential election is the candidate achieving 50% of the votes, plus one. If no candidate passes this mark, a second round of voting is then held. One other rule is that to become a candidate for president (candidacies are dual tickets, for president and vice-president), the candidate’s party must have won at least 25% of the vote for the lower house of the legislature, the People’s Representative Council (DPR), or hold a minimum of 20% of the seats there. This essentially rules out independent candidates and those without a significant, nationwide party base. It also tends to mean the president and vice-president come from different parties, in order that the candidacy can receive the necessary support in the DPR, where individual parties seldom cross the 25% threshold.

The president appoints a Cabinet, again usually consisting of ministers drawn from a variety of parties, given the need for coalitions within the DPR. The president can propose bills to the DPR, issue regulations in emergencies, can appoint the chief justice, conduct foreign policy (although ultimately, the DPR’s approval must be sought for treaties and appointments) and grant pardons, after consultation with the Supreme Court.

The bicameral legislature consists of the lower, DPR and the upper Regional Representatives Council (DPD). Most political power resides in the DPR, whose 560 members are elected for five-year terms via an open-list proportional representation system, allowing voters to vote for individuals put forward by the different parties in electoral districts of between three and 10 seats each.

An electoral threshold is also in force, of 3.5% of the national vote. This tends to exclude regional and locally based parties at the national level, and was also imposed in order to reduce the number of parties overall. In 2004 there were 17 parties represented in the DPR; after the 2009 elections, there were just nine; and some are suggesting fewer still are likely to be represented following the 2014 elections. In 2009, 38 parties contested the elections, with perhaps a dozen likely to do so in 2014. The DPR debates proposed laws sent by the president, while it can also propose legislation of its own. It may question the president and government officials, and is also responsible for passing the budget.

As of year-end 2013, the nine parties in the DPR were divided between six on the government benches and three in opposition. The six ruling parties were led by SBY’s own Democratic Party (DP), with 148 seats, followed by Golkar, with 106; the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) with 57; PAN, with 46 seats; the United Development Party (PPP) with 38 seats; and the National Awakening Party (PKB) with 28. The PKS, PAN, PPP and PKB are all Islamist-based.

The opposition, meanwhile, consists of the PDI-P, with 94 seats; the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), with 26 seats; and the People’s Conscience Party (Hanura), with 17 seats.

Parties must have offices in 75% of the provinces and 50% of the districts to register, meaning that a major investment in infrastructure is required before a party can run in the national elections.

The upper house, meanwhile, contains 132 seats, with each province electing four members for single, five-year terms. In addition, the DPD must be involved in any legislation affecting the regions, while it may also propose bills to the DPR.


Since the Reformasi period began, there has also been a drive towards decentralisation of authority; in many ways this is a response to over-centralisation under Suharto and Sukarno, while is also designed to address demands for local autonomy and undermine separatist groups.

At year-end 2013, Indonesia consisted of 34 provinces, with Aceh, Jakarta, Yogjakarta, Papua and West Papua enjoying different levels of autonomy from the rest. In 2009, for example, Aceh introduced sharia law, tightening this in 2013, while Yogjakarta is the only province still headed by a monarch.

In 2014 elections will also be held for 33 provincial assemblies (the DPRD I), and for their 508 subdivisions, the regencies or districts (DPRD II).

Some 2112 seats are being contested at the DPRD I level and 16,895 at the DPRD II. Jakarta and the newest province, North Kalimantan, will not have district-level balloting.

Judicial Matters

Indonesia’s legal code is based on civil law, with influences from Dutch, Roman and customary systems. Islamic law also plays a major role in Aceh. The highest court is the Supreme Court, which presides over everything except constitutional cases, which go to the Constitutional Court. The Supreme Court is headed by the chief justice, who since February 2012 has been MA Hatta Ali.

Beneath this court, the high courts consist of general, military, administrative and religious types, with some 250 district courts then coming under these. The Supreme Court is the final court of appeal and can also order the reopening of closed cases.

Meanwhile, a body often in the headlines these days is the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), a government agency that has had a controversial record. Nonetheless, the KPK has also accumulated a growing number of successful prosecutions and is generally widely respected.


Indonesia was among the founding members of ASEAN in 1967, along with Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Since then, the bloc has gained in stature, as well as in population and economic importance. Brunei joined the organisation in 1984, followed by Vietnam in 1995, Laos and Myanmar in 1997, and Cambodia in 1999. The bloc now has a combined GDP of around $2.3trn. In the past few decades, the region’s impressive growth rates have helped millions out of poverty and transformed what were once largely agrarian economies, such as Malaysia and Thailand, into centres for manufacturing and industry. The richer nations are now looking to develop more sophisticated service industries and move up the value chain, while the bloc’s poorer members have taken their place in lower-level manufacturing.

All this is putting more money into the hands of ordinary people and making more of them middle class – with an annual income of at least $3000. In Indonesia, ASEAN’s biggest economy and the source of around one-third of the group’s GDP, some 163m people are expected to be middle class by 2020, equivalent to the combined population of Britain and Germany. ASEAN is now moving towards closer integration of its markets, and 2015 has been set as the target date for the launch of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). Under the AEC, tariffs between the bloc’s five founding members plus Brunei will be almost entirely removed, while the later members will aim to adopt the same tariff levels by 2018 (see analysis). In addition to the AEC, ASEAN has also signed free trade agreements with other countries in the region, including Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Japan, India and China.

OTHER AFFILIATIONS: In addition to its membership in ASEAN, the country is a member of the UN, the World Trade Organisation, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation grouping as well as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. Indonesia was also one of the founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement, which was established in Belgrade in 1961 as a group of nations not aligned with or against the US or the Soviet Union in the Cold War.


With the presidential election due in mid-July 2014 and DPR and DPD balloting on April 9, the year is likely to be dominated by electioneering and balloting – followed by political bargaining, as the new president seeks to build a coalition in the Cabinet and in the DPR. Who that new president will be, however, has been the subject of considerable debate countrywide since soon after the last election in 2009. At the time of writing, the governor of Jakarta, Jokowi, was the frontrunner in the polls.

Jokowi was the PDI-P candidate when he won Jakarta’s top job in 2012, and in November 2013, it was not clear whether the PDI-P’s leader, the veteran politician Megawati Sukarnoputra, might not still decide to run – perhaps for the last time – on the PDI-P’s ticket. Jokowi had also only just begun to tackle Jakarta’s formidable challenges.

A candidate who has long declared his candidacy is Aburizal Bakrie, chairman of Golkar and member of the powerful business and financial family. A further candidate might come out of a coalition of parties unlikely to beat the 20-25% threshold in the DPR individually. This “central axis” group may band together many of the Islamist parties with the DP, which has lost much ground since 2009.

On balance, SBY leaves a mixed legacy. His first term won him considerable public support and good will, as he tried to tackle a number of major issues. Yet in his second term, he was often seen as far less effective. In any case, SBY leaves his successor as president with a series of challenges. Abroad, Indonesia will have to be ready for the introduction of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015, with many looking to Jakarta to take a more active role in regional and international politics. At home, economic growth and the distribution of its benefits remain thorny issues, as does solving the bottlenecks and impediments thrown up by rapid expansion in a developing economy. Regional disparities and opportunities are also still high on the agenda. A busy time ahead, then, for whoever wins the elections in 2014.

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