Reforms haul politics into modern era

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 August, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 August, 2002, 12:00am

From 2004, Indonesia will have a vastly modified political system. The changes were approved at the recent annual session of the supreme People's Consultative Assembly, or MPR. They bring Indonesia much closer to the norms of other democracies and light years away from the controlled system of former president Suharto.

Key among the changes is a total revamp of the look of the MPR, the supreme institution of state. In the past it consisted of the smaller House of Representatives, or DPR, plus appointed representatives from the regions and the so-called 'functional groups', who only took their seats during the occasional MPR sessions.

In future, it will be more like a joint session of the houses of Congress in the United States.

The DPR has been redesigned to remove unelected legislators. But it has also been supplemented with a new second chamber, the Regional Representatives Council or DPD, which will have a hand in drafting legislation and will effectively function as a type of Senate. The hope is that this will give the regions a stronger voice at national level and reduce the centralistic tendencies of the past.

The MPR remains the top institution of state, as stipulated by Indonesia's founding fathers when they declared independence in 1945, but it has been redefined as a combination of the DPR and DPD. It will still appoint the president, but only after the president has been elected by the people.

This was the other major change clarified by the 'fourth amendment' to the constitution, which the MPR passed on August 11. In 2004, for the first time, Indonesia will have a direct presidential election, in two rounds like the French presidential election.

This will be a fundamental change to the nature of Indonesian politics and will hopefully make the powerful institution of the presidency more accountable to the voters. In return, the president elected in 2004 will in theory have a stronger popular mandate than any previously.

It also means the 2004 election will be very hard to predict. For the first time, Indonesian politicians seeking the presidency will have to present themselves as individuals and their policies to voters in a concrete form. They may have to take part in televised debates, which would have been unimaginable under the Suharto regime.

In the past, presidential elections were arranged in backroom deals. In nearly every single case the result of the election was known in advance. The only exception to that was in 1999, when Abdurrahman Wahid pipped Megawati Sukarnoputri to the presidency in an indirect election by an MPR which had largely been elected democratically, only to be forced out of office himself less than two years later and replaced by his deputy.

The result of the annual MPR session has pleased many analysts and appears to have generally satisfied most of the mainstream parties. Conservative Islamic groups were disappointed at the rejection of Sharia law and have vowed to revive the issue. But at the moment they look a very long way from ever getting the two-thirds majority they would need to rewrite the constitution again.

The result went through mostly by consensus, as President Megawati wanted, although a vote was taken over the abolition of the 'functional groups'.

In Indonesian politics, this is considered important, as a vote is sometimes seen as humiliating for the defeated party.

And the idea of scrapping the entire reform process and returning to the original, unreformed 1945 constitution appears to have been firmly rejected once and for all.

This had been floated as an idea before the session started and gave many reformists cause for concern. There had been fears when the session opened that there would be a deadlock and the amendment would not get through. That would have left Indonesia with a messy, half-amended constitution. Some analysts were talking of a constitutional crisis and the military tentatively suggested returning to the original, centralistic constitution as a way out. That would have meant scrapping four years of work.

Andrew Ellis of the National Democratic Institute said that, overall, the package was a consistent set of reforms for a presidential system of government and could be made to work, if implementing legislation is put in place in the next few months

However, there are still a lot of rough edges. New political laws to be passed in the next few months may patch over some of the holes. A Constitutional Commission will also begin work next year to make a more thorough review of the amended constitution and recommend further modifications.