World's Third-Largest Democracy Heads to Polls for Local Leaders

  • Around 100 million eligible to vote in Indonesia ballots
  • Governors, mayors control local permits and government funds

The world’s third-largest democracy holds elections Wednesday to select local leaders with the power to speed up or stall Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s economic reforms in regional areas.

QuickTake Indonesia’s Nationalism

Around 100 million people are eligible to vote for nine provincial governors, 36 city mayors and 224 district heads, according to Andrew Thornley, a program director at The Asia Foundation in Jakarta. Under the country’s decentralized system of governance, local chiefs will get more than a third of the central government’s budget spending for 2016, and can hand out permits for land use.

Local elections gave Widodo his political start as mayor of the Javan city of Solo, before he became governor of the capital Jakarta and then last year won the presidency. Widodo, known as Jokowi, is trying to boost economic growth through infrastructure in less developed areas, after a delayed start to public spending this year as funds were stuck in regional development banks.

“Some of the slowness in government spending disbursement has been due to election uncertainties, as local officials refrain from pushing through projects because of uncertainties about who the bosses would be,” said Wellian Wiranto, an economist for Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp. in Singapore. “New terms in office for the municipal officials should hopefully inject more momentum to spending next year.”

National Impact

Voters will pick a leader for Jokowi’s home town of Solo, as well as fast-growing cities such as Surabaya, Medan and Manado, and provinces on Sumatra and Borneo islands that are key producing areas for coal, oil, rubber, palm oil and cocoa. The results will be watched for any impact on party dynamics at the national level, where opposition group Golkar is split on whether to join Jokowi’s ruling coalition, Wiranto said.

The polls mark another step in the democratic progress of the sprawling archipelago, after its first nationwide vote in 1999 and first direct elections for leaders in 2004. The national parliament agreed in January to preserve direct local elections for governors and mayors, after lawmakers initially voted to return to a system where local legislators picked regional leaders. That was the process under dictator Suharto last century.

Lacking Candidates

They also show the limits to Jokowi’s authority. The government devolved power to the regions to prevent the archipelago breaking up after the end of Suharto’s three-decade rule and the Asian financial crisis in 1998. Dubbed the Big Bang decentralization, Indonesia almost doubled the share of government spending to regions and transferred almost two thirds of the central government workforce, a 2003 World Bank report said.

Results will be announced from Thursday until Dec. 19, with districts first, followed by regions and provinces, Indonesia’s Viva website cited the head of the elections commission as saying.

Thornley said drawbacks include a lack of impressive candidates and female nominations, those with graft convictions being allowed to run, the use of dummy candidates to help an incumbent win unopposed, plus the high cost of campaigning and of getting endorsements from parties, which can lead to corruption once in office.

The police arrested eight people in Java for producing counterfeit money allegedly related to the elections, according to state news agency Antara. Handouts ahead of the ballots have included land, spurring haze-producing forest fires that made Indonesia the world’s worst greenhouse gas polluter in recent months.

Improvements for these polls include a lower winning threshold of 30 percent, avoiding the need for second rounds, and greater transparency from social media, Thornley said.

“Perhaps the most significant aspect of these elections is that they are happening at all,” Thornley said. “They do reflect the remarkable scale, evolution, and innovation -- as well as the residual flaws -- of Indonesia’s frequent elections.”

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