Thinking About Elections

My research for PUSaKO and the Constitutional Court this summer centers around presidential elections in the United States and Indonesia. Specifically, I’m looking at the electoral systems used to elect presidents and the resolution of electoral disputes in presidential elections.

So far, I’ve had the opportunity to hear from various election researchers and experts about electoral systems, the 2019 elections in Indonesia, the history of the Constitutional Court, and the challenges of holding elections during the Covid-19 pandemic. Two issues have stood out to me so far, both of which have generated debate in Indonesia.

The first issue concerns a threshold requirement for nominating presidential candidates. In Indonesia, presidential candidates are selected by political parties rather than by citizens. Prior to 2008, parties which received 5% of the votes in the previous legislative elections or which hold 3% of seats in the legislature could nominate a presidential candidate. However in 2008, the legislature raised the threshold, requiring that parties receive 25% of the votes in the previous election or hold 20% of seats in the legislature in order to nominate a candidate. The move to raise the threshold benefits larger parties since they will be able to meet the threshold with relative ease, while it disadvantages smaller and newer parties for whom it is very difficult to meet the 25/20 threshold.

Opponents of the 25/20 threshold say that it in effect creates a two-party system, and this criticism has largely held true. Indonesia uses a two-round system to elect its presidents. In the first round, voters select their preference from among all of the presidential candidates. If no candidate achieves a 50% + 1 majority, then the two candidates who received the most votes proceed to a second round, and voters return to the polls to choose between those two candidates. In the 2004 presidential election, there were five candidates. In 2009, the first election using the 25/20 threshold, political parties nominated three presidential candidates. However,  in the two most recent presidential elections (2014 and 2019), there were only two candidates for voters to choose between, thus making the second round of voting unnecessary. This matters because Indonesia’s Constitution specifies the use of a two-round system of voting for presidents, and the use of a two-round system necessarily implies that there will be more than two presidential candidates. Thus if the 25/20 threshold is producing a system in which political parties can only nominate two presidential candidates, then it may be impeding the intentions of the Constitutional drafters.

The second issue also concerns legislative and presidential elections. Prior to ­­­­2019, legislative elections were held a few months prior to the presidential elections. However in 2014, the Constitutional Court held that legislative and presidential elections must be held on the same day. The move was seen as a way to reduce the costs of elections and increase voter turnout.

However, the decision has also raised concerns. First, holding elections concurrently is a massive logistical feat given the country’s geography and its large population. In 2019, approximately 192 million voters cast their ballots at more than 800,000 polling stations across the country, choosing among more than 300,000 candidates for around 20,000 open seats.

 Second, holding legislative and presidential elections concurrently affects the nomination of presidential candidates. In the past, legislative elections were held in April and presidential elections took place in July. This allowed political parties to know whether they met the 25/20 threshold and thus could nominate a presidential candidate or if they needed to form a coalition with other parties in order to reach the threshold. This is no longer possible since the voters vote for the legislature and the president simultaneously. Now, the number of votes and seats that political parties received in the previous election determines whether they can nominate a presidential candidate in the current election. For example, a party which met the 25/20 threshold in the 2019 legislative elections will be able to nominate a presidential candidate for the 2024 election. This is problematic because a party can gain or lose support from one election to the next. Thus, allowing a party to nominate a candidate based on their support from five years ago rather than their popularity in the current election cycle may not be a good reflection of the voters’ will.

Elections aside, another important aspect of my internship is to develop a greater understanding of Indonesian culture. Although I said I’d provide recommendations for good Indonesian food in Williamsburg, I am sad to report that the closest Indonesian restaurant that I’ve found so far is 180 miles away. Instead of making the 2.5 hour drive, I have resorted to watching Anthony Bourdain’s travels in Jakarta and Bali (Season 2 of No Reservations and Season 12 of Parts Unknown if you’re curious!) and Netflix’s Street Food: Asia. Watching travel shows is certainly not a substitute for actually visiting Indonesia, but even through a screen the diversity in food, geography, tradition, and culture from Jakarta to Bali to Yogyakarta (to name only a few) is incredible.