In Indonesian politics, less is less, not more
People who argue that approving a smaller number of political parties to field candidates in the next election is good for democracy ought to have their heads examined.
There is no guarantee that the 10 parties that have been approved by the General Election Commission (KPU) to run in the 2014 elections will strengthen our nascent democracy.
On the contrary, if the performance of existing parties is any indication, democratic reform will likely stall, if not regress, with fewer parties. The ruling not only reduces the choices available to voters, it will also kill off political diversity and pluralism.
In Indonesian politics, less is not more. Instead, less is less.
The decision smacks of conspiracy between the KPU and the nine parties represented in the House of Representatives (DPR) to keep other parties out of the electoral process.
Only one newcomer, the National Democrat Party (NasDem), passed entry barriers that have been set exceptionally high, thanks to the collusion between the KPU and the DPR. Twenty-four other parties, some representing the legitimate political aspirations of the people of this diverse nation, failed to make the list because they did not meet stringent qualification criteria.
The established parties, sensing their declining standing among voters, campaigned hard to limit the number of new political parties on the pretext of simplifying the process for voters.
They argued that 38, the number of parties that was certified in 2009, was too many and would confuse voters. In 1999, the first democratic elections post-Soeharto, 48 parties fielded candidates. In 2004, there were 24. The qualification criteria changed with each election, as parties in the DPR revised the electoral law to suit their interests and the KPU added its own regulations on top of the law.
Ten parties in 2014 may seem like a manageable number. At least it still reflects a multi-party electoral system, albeit a simpler system.
But the existing parties have failed miserably in almost every aspect of their job - from representing and fighting for the interests of people to making laws in the DPR to fighting rampant corruption. Not surprisingly, political parties and the DPR have consistently ranked among the worst performing institutions by several surveys.
A closer analysis of their platforms will also make it clear that voters will have difficulties in differentiating the parties. Real choices in 2014 will be limited. With the exception of one Islamist party, the United Development Party (PPP), the parties certified to field candidates in 2014 have no clear-cut ideology or platform.
Everyone strives to be centrist, which essentially means having no ideology as they try to please everyone. The Democratic Party won the 2009 election, Golkar in 2004 and the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) in 1999, as voters changed their preference from one election to the next.
In 2014, the centre ground will be even more crowded with the likes of NasDem (a breakaway party formed by disgruntled Golkar members), and upstart Gerindra. Even the PKS decided to shed its Islamic platform at its congress in 2010 to become a nationalist centrist party like everybody else, as it hopes to make it into the top three parties in 2014.
In short, voters will be served a smaller menu in 2014. Given that the performance of the existing nine parties has been mediocre at best, we can expect little change in 2014 in terms of political reform. At best, we will we stagnate. At worst, we will see democracy suffering a setback.
The 2014 elections have ceased to be a forum for people to exercise their sovereignty. Not only is reform is dead, political diversity and pluralism are also in danger of disappearing.