Every five years we renew the debate over the most appropriate electoral system to use: the first-past-the-post method or proportional representation? While the arguments are essentially unchanged, their proponents are different this time around.
Predictably, the House of Representatives, which is debating the bill on general elections, is polarized, with the three big parties on one side and the six smaller parties on the other. It is not an equal contest, as the big three — the Democratic Party, the Golkar Party and the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) — dominate the House. The outcome will almost certainly be in their favor.
In the last three elections, Indonesia has moved further and further away from the proportional representation system of the Soeharto years, with seats in the legislature divided among contesting parties according to their share of the votes, to something closer to a winner-takes-all system, with district winners gaining the entire vote.
What Indonesia has is a combination of the two, with the country divided into electoral districts of three to 10 seats. It is not the single-seat district system found in the US, UK and Australia, but as Indonesia moves toward a system of smaller districts, the number of seats per district is reduced. The first district seats go to candidates winning the greatest percentage of the vote, with the remaining seats allocated proportionally.
The Democratic Party has made the most vocal push for smaller districts comprised of three to eight seats. It would mean more districts nationwide, and probably more seats to contest in the House than the current 550. Fewer seats mean fewer proportional allotments.
The Party, established as a political vehicle for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to contest the 2004 presidential election, was the main beneficiary of a system that was then still tilted toward proportional representation. Two elections later, the Democratic Party has become the largest party and has worked against any upstart parties hoping grow along similar lines.
The Golkar Party will likely support the Democratic Party but will also likely be less vocal in pushing for a single seat district system. PDI-P will follow suit as well, though it has to do some cost-benefit analysis on moving closer to a single-seat district system.
The six smaller parties of the House — the PKS, the PAN, the PPP, the PKB, the Gerindra Party and the Hanura Party — are expected to join hands in opposing moves towards smaller districts.
They are fully aware that their influence in the capital would be decimated — if not completely eliminated — in 2014 if the big parties get their way. They have the support of dozens of small political parties that have registered with the government but lack House representation.
Small parties are already struggling to fend off the big parties’ move to raise the parliamentary threshold, which grants parties earning a high enough percentage of the nationwide vote the right to sit in the House of Representatives, from 2.5 percent to 5 percent.
There is already consensus among the big three to try to reduce the number of political parties in the House in an effort to simplify the multi-party system. But simple does not mean efficient.
Under the mixed system in 2009, some 18 percent of the valid votes that had gone to small parties were wasted because they did not win any seats in any of the districts or they did not reach the parliamentary threshold. Smaller districts would mean even more votes wasted in 2014. That’s the consequence of winner-takes-all. Some see this as its downside, but others would equally argue this to be its strength.
There is no right or wrong answer in this debate. Both first-past-the-post and proportional representation — or a combination of the two — are used in many countries in the world. One is not more or less democratic than another.
The US, the UK, Australia and Malaysia are among the countries using the first-past-the-post system.
Netherlands and Spain are examples of countries using proportional representation. Germany, Japan and Thailand are, like Indonesia, using a mixture of the two.
The proponents of single-seat districts or smaller districts argue that it would bring the elected representatives closer and more accountable to the constituents. It seems like a reasonable argument.
The proponents of proportional representation say their system guarantees the multi-party system, which suits Indonesia given the size and diversity of its population. This too sounds like a valid argument.
The move toward a single-seat district or smaller district system would certainly eliminate the small parties and may even put Indonesia well on its way towards an eventual two-party system, a proposition that appeals to some people who are confused by and tired of the many political parties that in effect are not all that different.
Which way is Indonesia going?
Unfortunately, the decision is not so much about what the national priority at this stage of development is. It is not whether we want politicians who are closer and more accountable to the constituents or a legislature that reflects its political plurality. Instead, the decision will likely be the outcome of negotiations between the political parties in the House of Representatives. For better or for worse, the bigger parties will prevail.
The writer is senior editor at The Jakarta Post.
Opini The Jakarta Post 5 Januari 2011