The parties that support the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono recently decided that they want to stick to the open-list electoral system for the 2014 legislative elections, just like in 2009.
Sadly, this decision by the ruling coalition’s secretariat means that after 2014, we will likely still have a House of Representatives largely made up of less-than-qualified lawmakers.
What to do?
A stronger Regional Representatives Council is the only way forward if we want to have a House we can count on.
Mahfud M.D., head of the Constitutional Court, has said that 57 laws produced by the House since 2001 were legally flawed and were therefore annulled by his court. Where on earth would you find a legislature that produces so many wrong laws, wasting a tremendous amount of money and time?
The question is, how credible are our lawmakers? Are they not all experts, professionals and the best minds we can rely on to make laws that govern our national life?
The House is the product of the open-list electoral system that was used in the 2009 elections. Under this system, voters choose legislative candidates named on the ballot. As a result, many were able to win votes through populism and money politics.
Political parties under this system have little power to decide who ends up in the House. Even the smartest and most capable professionals proposed by a party cannot become lawmakers if they do not pass the popularity test.
In the past, when a closed-list electoral system was applied, political parties determined who should be on the list and people merely voted for a party. This system guaranteed that the most capable candidates (at least according to the parties) were high on the list.
The open-list system that will be used in the 2014 elections will usher in a costly and unhealthy competition. Money politics will breed corruption and our pseudo-democracy will continue to wander aimlessly.
Given that voters need to know them personally, party leaders will spend a lot on image-building campaigns. Media reports say a minimum of Rp 2.5 billion ($280,000) is needed to finance one’s way to the legislature. Even more is required in areas where a candidate is not well known to voters.
Regardless of their quality and capacity, people like soap opera stars, singers, comedians, winners of beauty pageants, musicians and even magicians (celebrities with little or no experience at all in politics) will have the best chance of getting elected to the House.
After the elections and the costly campaigns are over, the first duty of the new lawmakers will be to find ways to recoup all that money they spent, a lot of which may have been “borrowed” from various sources. And this is exactly the reason why some say politicians “need” to be corrupt.
What can parties do about this? They can train celebrities and community leaders so that they can become credible legislators. Likewise, it is their duty to boost the image of party members who are qualified but relatively unpopular.
But it is much more likely that even with a closed-list system, the result in 2014 would still be a House full of popular figures, business patrons and politicians, all pursuing their personal and group interests.
The reason is simple: political parties lack concrete agendas for upgrading the quality of their leaders. In every party, the ones calling the shots are not necessarily the most capable politicians. They are the financiers who think they are the best candidates for every political position.
In such a catch-22, is there any way in which we can improve the quality of the people’s representatives?
There certainly is: we should strengthen the Regional Representatives Council (DPD).
The Constitution gives the DPD very limited power and assigns to it a balancing role.
Members of the DPD are professional business and community leaders who are native residents and represent all 33 provinces. They reach the DPP after being elected directly by people from their respective regions. Voters know them well because of their track records and integrity.
The election of DPD members is more legitimate, because they have more voters behind them than House members. For instance, in East Java, a candidate needs five and a half million votes to get into the DPD, compared to only 500,000 votes needed for a seat in the House.
Unlike House members, quite a few of whom are in jail for corruption or other offenses, none of the 132 DPD members has ever been arrested for corruption or abuse of power.
So, one way to create a healthy legislature is to increase the number of DPD members to 280, or half the number of House members. This would require amendment of the Constitution’s stipulation that says that the membership of the DPD must not exceed one-third of the membership of the House.
It is a safe bet that in the absence of concerted efforts to strengthen the DPD, the next president will be “imprisoned” by the need to seek political compromise. Consequently, the president will be forced to give political parties the ministerial seats he would ideally reserve for the most qualified professionals.
Without some drastic changes and the amendment of the Constitution, the next House will not be any more qualified than the current one. Political parties need to start recruiting or training high-quality leaders.
A strong DPD could provide the crucial checks and balances for the House, which in turn would help strengthen the presidential cabinet system. If that doesn’t happen, the danger of disintegration will loom large in our heavily decentralized archipelago.
Pitan Daslani is a political correspondent for BeritaSatu Media Holdings.