Sole candidates harm political parties

Dr. Gun Gun Heryanto

Dr. Gun Gun Heryanto

Gun Gun Heryanto

Of the 93 regencies and cities that will hold elections on Feb. 15, nine will see only one candidate pair running, although this does not necessarily mean they will go unchallenged.

In the regencies of Buton, Southeast Sulawesi, West Tulang Bawang in Lampung, Pati, Central Java, Landak in West Kalimantan, Tambraw, West Papua, and the cities of Tebing Tinggi in North Sumatra, Sorong, West Papua, Jayapura in Papua and Central Maluku in Maluku, the sole candidates will compete with the blank box on election day. According to regulations, the General Elections Commission (KPU) will declare them the winners if they manage to secure more than 50 percent of the valid votes. If the sole candidates fail, the KPU will rerun the elections with the next simultaneous regional elections in 2018.

The phenomenon of sole candidate pairs also occurred in the 2015 simultaneous local elections last December in Blitar, East Java, Tasikmalaya in West Java and North Timor Tengah in East Nusa Tenggara. The Constitutional Court (MK) allowed sole candidates to contest the election for the posts of governor, regent and mayor to respect the constitutional rights of voters.

Despite being legally accommodated, the phenomenon of sole candidate elections constitutes an irony of democracy. Simply put, the phenomenon evinces the failure of political parties to provide a competitive channel for local elections.

In the nine aforementioned regions, for instance, the sole candidates accumulated support from the majority of political parties and left no support for other aspirants. In Pati regency, for instance, the pair of Haryanto-Saiful Arifin were nominated by a coalition of parties that together accounted for 46 of the 50 seats in the local legislature. The electoral threshold for regional elections is 20 percent of legislative seats.

Though sole candidate elections are legal and acceptable, they are clearly largely uncompetitive. Political parties should evaluate this phenomenon.

Multiple candidates create a space for a competition of concepts, ideas and discourses. The more candidates, the more stages to test the capacity and capability of candidates, which is highly preferable because voters want the best to win.

When building a coalition, political parties tend to act in the interests of the elite, rather than focusing on strengthening and consolidating democracy. The party elite do not dare to nominate figures who could potentially lose.

This logic is indeed shallow and ridiculous. It is the role of political parties to select candidates who will gain popular support. It is not a facile matter of course, but political parties have sufficient time to identify potential candidates with talent, a good track record and high electability.

In practice during the candidacy process, many parties often ignore political institutionalization. They fail to develop a clear and structured mechanism for regeneration. As a result they cannot effectively distribute and assign their members to posts in the executive and legislative branches, nor seats in their own internal bodies.

The phenomenon of sole candidate elections should be taken as a lesson for the nation about the need to improve election administration and governance.

As the first note, the bulk of support from the majority of political parties has paved the way for power sharing between an elected regional head and his/ her supporting parties at the expense of a mechanism for controlling the government, which will only generate cartel politics.

In this situation, the political system is dominated by a handful of elites whose purpose is to carry out their overt and covert agendas in the interest of their patrons who sit at the top of the hierarchy. Dan Slater in his 2004 book, Indonesia’s Accountability Trap: Party Cartels and Presidential Power after Democratic Transition, argues that democracy in Indonesia has often been trapped by cartel politics and collusion.

His work only describes the national political constellation, which is prone to collusion between powerful entities and individuals. However, monopolizing power at the local level is also a form of cartel politics, as evident in the political dynasties as in Klaten, Central Java, and Banten province.

Second, the support of majority political parties anchors their power and influence in both the political infrastructure (e.g. political parties, non-governmental organizations, religious organizations) and suprastructure (legislative, executive and judicial branches of power). Massive support in the absence of opposition will lead to a habitus of corruption, where bureaucracy transforms democracy into kleptocracy.

One redeeming factor is that the sole candidates will at least contend against blank boxes in the regional elections. However, for the sake of the consolidation of our democracy, an immediate improvement in our electoral process is needed.

Simultaneous local elections should be more competitive, in line with the improvement in the roles and functions of political parties.

First and foremost, political parties should have the intention and political will to make the most of local elections as an opportunity to strengthen their capacity and capabilities. Without a strong commitment to change, it will not be surprising if their constituents desert them.

Gun Gun Heryanto

Executive director of the Political Literacy Institute

Articles have been published in the Opinion column of the daily Jakarta Post, Wednesday, February 8, 2017. (lrf-sf)