Local Election Disputes in Indonesia: North Maluku

Local Election Disputes in Indonesia: North Maluku

INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP - NEW BRIEFING

Jakarta/Brussels

An Indonesian provincial election dispute that once threatened to erupt in violence appears to be sputtering to an anticlimactic close, more evidence that Indonesia’s democratic institutions are working.

Local elections Disputes in Indonesia: The case of North Maluku, the latest International Crisis Group briefing, analyses a local electoral contest that took more than a year to decide the winner and led to sporadic clashes in the streets. Even after a winner was installed in late September 2008, his opponent was still challenging the result; a final decision is expected from Indonesia’s Constitutional Court in February 2009.

"This is a case where almost everything that could go wrong with an election did", says John Virgoe, Crisis Group’s South East Asia Project Director. "But the serious violence that many feared didn’t materialise, in part because no one wanted a repeat of bitter communal conflict a decade earlier". Some 3,500 people died in the province in 1999-2000.

The poorly run, deeply divisive North Maluku election is also the exception that proves the rule: of some 400 local contests that have taken place since 2005, most have proceeded without incident, and of more than 150 where the results were contested in the courts, most were peacefully resolved. The North Maluku poll, by contrast, was marked by poor preparation, allegations of rigging, disputed counting, biased election supervisors, clashes in the streets and more. The Jakarta political elite took sides, and a resolution effort by the Supreme Court made things worse.

"If Indonesia’s democracy had been less robust, the North Maluku dispute could have been disastrous", says Sidney Jones, Crisis Group Senior Adviser. "Instead it shows that Indonesia’s political system can cope with a few failures and even learn from the experience". In late 2008, the Indonesian parliament passed a law transferring authority for resolving election disputes from the Supreme Court to the Constitutional Court, the country’s youngest but arguably most competent judicial body.

The long drawn out electoral battle is not over yet. In early February, all eyes will be on the Constitutional Court to see whether it will agree to review a petition that effectively supports the losing side. If it does, the province could be thrown into political turmoil again. If it refuses, the North Maluku election may end up as little more than a historical footnote to Indonesia’s democratisation.