Beawiharta / Courtesy Reuters A child attends a campaign rally of the Great Indonesia Movement Party at a stadium in Jakarta, March 23, 2014.

Indonesia in Pieces

The Downside of Decentralization

In April, voters in Indonesia’s parliamentary elections shocked many observers, confounded most pollsters, and seemed to set back their own long-term interests by failing to deliver a massive victory to the main opposition party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle. Under the country’s complex electoral rules, a party must win 25 percent of the popular vote (or 20 percent of the seats in parliament) before it can formally nominate a presidential candidate. Polls had predicted that the Democratic Party of Struggle would win up to 30 percent of the vote, largely thanks to the massive popularity of the politician the party announced would represent it in the presidential election: Joko Widodo, the governor of Jakarta, who was expected to win that race handily. But his party managed to eke out only 19 percent -- more than any of the 11 other parties in the running, but not enough to cross the threshold. And so Jokowi, as he is widely known, will have to form a coalition to run for president, meaning that if he manages to take the helm of the world’s third-largest democracy in July, he’ll do so with little power and representing an alliance with no clear platform.

Indonesian voters have long been frustrated by the endless horse-trading and political compromise such deals inevitably involve. The current president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, proved unable to deliver on his promised reforms because he had to hand out so many cabinet seats to other parties in order to build a coalition of his own in 2004. Since then, the Democratic Party, which came into being as a vehicle for electing Yudhoyono, has done little to develop local bases of support, and it has paid a heavy price: in the April elections, the party’s share of the vote collapsed, to ten percent, from 21 percent in 2009. 

Why has the Indonesian electorate forced the man they want to replace Yudhoyono into the same corner of constant compromise? The answer lies in a little-understood but critical aspect

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