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Jakarta's threshold for presidential race

Publication Date : 08-10-2012


Indonesia's presidential election may be two years away, but political parties have started jostling to field their own candidates for the 2014 poll.

New faces are expected to emerge to join known presidential aspirants in the race to replace two-term President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who cannot seek another term. His Democrat Party, weakened by corruption scandals, has yet to find a candidate to succeed him.

A pair of candidates for president and vice-president can only enter the race through the backing of a political party or a coalition of parties.

But there is a requirement under the election law of what is known as "ambang batas" or presidential nomination threshold. The threshold requires a party or an alliance of parties to have 20 per cent of seats in Parliament or 25 per cent of the national vote garnered in the legislative elections before they can nominate their candidates for the contest.

The Presidential Election Bill, to replace the current law, is bogged down in the national Parliament (DPR) by the debate over this threshold issue.

The presidential polls, to be held in July 2014, will be preceded by the legislative elections in April that could decide whether a political party could nominate its own pair of candidates.

The whole polemic over the threshold is not so much motivated by the need to ensure a healthy democratic election of the head of state and his deputy. It is driven by the individual party's consideration of their likely performances in the legislative elections.

Legislators are debating three options:

- First, retain the current threshold of 20 per cent of seats in Parliament or 25 per cent of the national vote obtained in the preceding legislative elections.

- Second, reduce the threshold to 15 per cent of seats in Parliament or 20 per cent of the national vote in the legislative elections.

- Or third, allow parties which win 3.5 per cent of the national vote in the legislative elections to field their candidates.

The big parties in Indonesia, the ruling Democrat Party (PD), Golkar Party and the Democratic Party of Struggle, have insisted on the first option. But none of them got 25 per cent of the national vote in the last elections.

The PD, the winner in the 2009 elections, is willing to accept the second option as it fears that it may not be able to do as well as the last legislative elections because the party's image has been tarnished by corruption scandals involving its senior members.

There are reasons why the big political parties insist on a higher threshold.

First, it is partly in their selfish interest to prevent smaller parties from proposing new contenders who could threaten their own candidates at the polls.

Second, a higher threshold would limit the number of candidates taking part in the election, perhaps to a maximum of four pairs of contenders.

Third, a candidate nominated by big parties stands a better chance to be a stronger president because he will be backed by parties that dominate Parliament, making it easier to push through policies. And he will be able to form a stable government.

Smaller parties with seats in Parliament garnered only 3.8 per cent to 7.9 per cent of the vote in the 2009 legislative elections. Their concern is that a higher threshold would shut them out and they claim this is against democracy. Their choice is the third option, which allows parties with only 3.5 per cent of the national vote to join the race.

Gerindra, a small party with only 4.5 per cent of the national vote, aspires to field its founder, former army general Prabowo Subianto. Last Monday it filed a judicial review at the Constitutional Court for the threshold to be reviewed on grounds that it was against the Constitution.

Habiburokhman, a lawyer for the party, argued that the Constitution made no mention of any electoral threshold.

The relevant article of the Constitution states only that presidential and vice-presidential candidates shall be "proposed by a political party or coalition of parties that participate in the general election". Gerindra wants the court to rule that parties with 3.5 per cent of the national vote are eligible to field their candidates.

The lawsuit was filed to remove the roadblocks preventing Mr Prabowo from contesting.

Analyst Kevin O'Rourke, writing in the latest issue of Reformasi Weekly, said: "Wrangling over the level of a presidential nominating threshold reflects a concern by major incumbent parties to insulate themselves from upstart rivals."

The presidential nominating threshold has been practised since the first direct election in 2004 but without any protest that it was unconstitutional. The issue is being raised now because such a threshold is seen as hindering smaller parties from participating in the presidential polls.

The concern here is that if the threshold is lowered so much that it allows many parties to take part, Indonesia will see at least half a dozen pairs of contenders in the race. The election will also go to two rounds since none would get 50 per cent of the vote. The electorate will have problems choosing the right candidate.

Whatever threshold the legislators eventually decide on, the hope of many is that a stronger presidency should emerge and a more stable government should be formed. The new president will have to work with all parties, not just those who backed him.


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