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Indonesia, myths and elections

By Kevin Evans - posted Thursday, 29 March 2012

The peoples of most countries build myths around themselves. My own country of birth, Australia, offers many such myths. There is the myth of egalitarianism that lives on despite the widening gap between rich and poor notably over the past two decades. There is also a myth of Australian life as the rural outback, despite the fact that 90% of Australians live in urban, mostly, coastal cities. There is also the myth of the well-toned and sun-tanned Aussie despite the fact that a growing proportion of the population look more like me – pale and obese!!

In each case living under the myth distracts critical public attention, understanding and action away from redressing real problems. Sometimes assuming that myths represent reality can be downright dangerous and self-defeating.

Presidential myth


Indonesians too have built their own fair share of myths. One of these is the idea that Indonesia has traditionally applied a presidential system of government. The only recognised deviation wasthe much maligned period of the 1950s when a civil law parliamentary system was used.

As a point of clarity having a president does notnecessarily mean a presidential system. Having a president merely means that the country is a republic and not a monarchy. Indeed there are many republics that use a parliamentary system, such as Germany, Turkey, Italy and India. Many others republics have a directly elected President but the parliament determines, and is responsible for, the government agenda and public policy implementation such as France, Russia, Singapore, Taiwan, Finland, Portugal and to an extent South Korea.

The myth in Indonesia has been that the original 1945 Constitution provided for a presidential system of government. Indeed at a crude glance it did look rather presidential. The Head of State and the Head of Government were the same person, that is the President. This "dual function" is standard in any presidential system.

However, if we look more carefully at how the national political engine was designed to work, rather than the names of its parts, we see that the president was elected and dismissed through a parliamentary process. Setting aside the fudge factor that argued the old National Assembly was somehow not a legislative body, the parliament was the dominant component in that political engine. Under this system, the foundation of political legitimacy and accountability as well as the political survival of the president was determined notby the voters, but rather their MPs. This is the essence of any parliamentary system.

The difference between other parliamentary systems and Indonesia's original 1945 Constitution was that the parliament determined the fate of both the Head of State and Head of Government at the same time. In this regard the old Indonesian system should be considered to represent an extremely radical form of parliamentary system. Indeed the only example of such a system being applied anywhere else I have found was inNationalist China after1931. This system remained in operation on Taiwan until its political Reformasi from the late 1980s replaced it with the mixed Premier Presidential system itusestoday.

Source of the myth


So, from where did the myth of Indonesian presidentialism originate?

The answer can be found from the national experiences of the first 2 presidents from the end of the 1950s to the end of the 1990s. Both exerted power and influence that extended way beyond the confines of any democratic interpretation of the Constitution. These presidents dominated the political scene by emasculating the body that had the right and responsibility to appoint or dismiss them, namely the parliament.

President Sukarno did this was abolishing electoral politics and appointing the parliament himself. Not surprising these members of this parliament were happy to return the favour by appointing him president soon after.

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About the Author

Kevin Evans is a 30 veteran of Asian Studies and a long term Australian resident in Indonesia commencing work with the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. After this position he left to work for the ANZ Investment Bank in Jakarta. When Indonesia's political reform started in 1998 he began working with various Indonesian government agencies to promote political reform in the areas of electoral and constitutional reform. Following the Boxing Day tsunami he supported the establishment of the Indonesian reconstruction agency, BRR, and continues to work it to counter corruption and to promote integrity and wider civil service reform.

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