Local Election Disputes in Indonesia: The Case of North Maluku
Asia Briefing N°86
22 Jan 2009
The election for governor in Indonesia’s North Maluku province was one of the most bitterly contested since direct elections for local government heads were introduced in 2005. Held in November 2007, it remains in dispute more than a year later, although a winner has been named and inaugurated. At one point it seemed as if violence between the two sides could escalate into serious communal conflict, in an area where thousands had died in religious violence a decade earlier. By early 2009, however, it looked as though Indonesia’s democratic institutions would be resilient enough to cope with an election gone wrong, and the dispute would be quietly resolved in the Constitutional Court. The Court’s decision is expected in early February. The dispute that many thought could trigger further turmoil may prove instead to be a minor wrangle in Indonesia’s largely successful effort to choose local government leaders by direct popular vote.
Almost everything that could have gone wrong with the November 2007 poll did, with poor preparation, allegations of rigging, disputed counting, biased election supervisors, clashes in the streets and more. It took nearly a year to determine the winner and proceed with the inauguration ceremony. The Jakarta political elite took sides, and a resolution effort by the Supreme Court made things worse. The governor and vice-governor were finally installed on 29 September 2008 amid ongoing protests from the losers.
North Maluku, however, is the exception that proves the rule: of some 400 local elections that have taken place since 2005, most have proceeded without incident, and of more than 150 where the results were contested in the courts, most were peacefully resolved. Moreover, a new law that took effect in late 2008 giving power to the Constitutional Court to resolve such disputes should produce quicker and better decisions in races that are as close and divisive as this one.
The North Maluku case is instructive in other ways as well. On the positive side, it shows how past experience with conflict acts as a restraining influence on local politicians, even when political competition assumes an ethnic dimension. North Maluku was engulfed in intense communal fighting in 1999-2000. No one wanted to see violence on that scale again, so even when there was a brief spate of tit-for-tat house burnings in July 2008, political leaders ensured it quickly ended. Similar instances of violence in former conflict areas, most recently in December 2008 in Central Maluku, show that community leaders, politicians and security forces have learned from past experience, so that communal violence is far less likely than it was a decade ago to spiral out of control.
On the negative side, the dispute showed that for all the bitterness and polarisation surrounding the election, it was all about power and not about policies. No one seemed to know or care what the two candidates stood for in terms of delivery of social services or provincial development plans. The issues were rather access to spoils and which ethnic group would get the more lucrative government positions. It was never clear that the average North Moluccan would be better off with one slate rather than the other, raising the question of what all the sound and fury was for.
Most importantly, however, the election shows that Indonesia’s political system can cope with a few cases of institutional failure and even learn from the experience: the new law giving the Constitutional rather than Supreme Court the authority to resolve election disputes is an example of a useful effort to address institutional weakness. The challenge for Indonesia now is to improve the quality of its candidates.
Jakarta/Brussels, 22 January 2009