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Does size matter in Indonesia’s party system?

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In Brief

Although minor parties in Indonesia may appear handicapped by their relative size, they more than make up for this with their versatility at coalitional manoeuvrings. They are predisposed towards alliances and collective leverage over mutual competition and independent action. They are the unique products of Indonesia’s own brand of proportional representation system in parliament.


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Minor parties can be considered to be parties that obtain less than 5 per cent of the national vote in addition to meeting the threshold requirements. Functionally, they serve as temporary threshold fillers for larger patron parties capable of making the presidential cut. But they may also be co-opted by parties that have already made it past thresholds. While some small parties tend to congregate around a few natural allies, their rallying point beyond legislative elections largely revolves around size, threshold politics and the perpetuation of party lines.

Apart from size, most of them exhibit certain traits. In a coalition, these parties tend to play a more subordinate role, although this does not necessarily translate into a weak or uninfluential position. Minor parties may not target the Indonesian presidency (or vice-presidency for that matter) but view the successful appointment of their own candidates into critical parliamentary positions and key government ministries as a more realistic goal. Their allegiances to a particular coalition are largely based on transactional relationships and may not last beyond a general election. Successful coalitional pairings are usually those that have overcome the barriers of past rivalries and discords or historical and ideological hurdles.

Following recent revisions to electoral laws, the current parliamentary threshold requirement for the 2014 elections has increased from 2.5 per cent in 2009 to 3.5 per cent of total national votes. In order to qualify as a minimum-winning coalition eligible for presidential contention, a total of 25 per cent of total national votes are required.

Based on a recent party electability survey conducted by Kompas, a number of political parties fall categorically into the tier of minor party for the 2014 elections, judging by their preliminary electability. They include the Democrat Party (PD) on 7.2 per cent, the NasDem Party (NasDem) on 6.9 per cent, the People’s Conscience Party (Hanura) on 6.6 per cent and the National Awakening Party (PKB) on 5.1 per cent. Minor parties that would have failed to meet the electoral cut but were significant players in past elections include familiar Islamic-based parties such as the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) on 2.3 per cent, the National Mandate Party (PAN) on 3.2 per cent and the United Development Party (PPP) on 2.4 per cent. These parties do have strong societal roots in Indonesia and it remains to be seen whether they have truly fallen from grace.

Of particular interest is the fate of PD, now relegated to minor party status. In 2009, it achieved an impressive 20.85 per cent of the popular vote. But PD has seen its approval ratings plummet in recent years due to rampant graft allegations and a fractious committee.

With the announcement of the presidential candidacy of Jakarta governor Joko Widodo (popularly known as Jokowi) under the banner of PDI-P following anointment by party chairwoman Megawati Sukarnoputri, it seems that PD’s political fortunes this time round may precariously hang on a coalition. Jokowi remains at the top of presidential opinion polls. Of the potential PD candidates, Dahlan Iskan holds the highest electability rate at 3.7 per cent. Given the longstanding feud between Megawati and the head of the PD, current President Yudhoyono, chances of a coalition with the PDI-P are highly unlikely. It may be prudent for PD to consider forming coalitions with other political parties.

Jokowi’s candidacy has also seen a flurry of minor party manoeuvring regarding his vice presidential selection. Golkar in particular had suggested a few names that could be paired in a union with PDI-P. PAN, a minor party, on the other hand had been increasingly vocal of the possible pairing of their chairman Hatta Rajasa together with Jokowi. Gerindra, previously a coalitional partner of the PDI-P in the 2009 general elections, may trudge a different path this time round. The party patron of Gerindra, Prabowo Subianto, has been extremely critical of the announcement of the Jokowi presidency. He is not likely to play second fiddle to a Jokowi (or PDI-P) coalition. The unexpected announcement of Jokowi as running candidate before the legislative elections may have upset some and pleased a few. Nonetheless there is no question that the PDI-P will be making their presence felt in a big way this time round. Minor parties will have to factor this into account.

The Constitutional Court has ordered that in 2019 there must be simultaneous legislative and presidential elections. This would likely mean the end of thresholds for presidential candidates. But the phenomenon of inter-party politicking and bargaining, resulting in temporary alliances between minor parties and larger ones, will still shape the 2014 race.

Jonathan Chen is an Associate Research Fellow in the Indonesia Programme of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

3 responses to “Does size matter in Indonesia’s party system?”

  1. It seems likely that the PDIP will win over 30% of the votes in the April 9 national legislative election and that Jokowi will win outright in the July 9 presidential poll. If these two outcomes occur, minor parties will be considerably less relevant than in the past.

    Jokowi won’t need to form a coalition to stand for the presidency, but he will need allies in parliament to pass legislation. Most Indonesian parties have unsavoury reputations for one reason or another. Thus forming a coalition, while it will be necessary for Jokowi, will at the same time compromise his standing as a fresh, new-look, uncorrupted leader.

    • The PDIP appears not to have done nearly as well in the 9 April poll as was widely predicted. The Islamic parties seem to have scored better than many assumed would be the case. The PDIP may well turn to the PKB, the party founded by former president Abdurrahman Wahid, which has attracted more votes than other Muslim parties. The PKB sells itself as a ‘nationalist’ Muslim party and can thus be presented as being closer ideologically to the nationalist PDIP than the other Muslim parties.

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