The Rise of Uncontested Elections in Indonesia: Case Studies of Pati and Jayapura.

AuthorLay, Cornelis

This article analyses a new trend in Indonesian local politics: uncontested elections, in which only one pair of candidates, usually the incumbent regional head and his or her deputy, stand for election. Uncontested elections are new in Indonesian politics, but are likely to become more common. In 2015, the first time such elections occurred, 269 regions held pilkada (pemilihan langsung kepala daerah, elections of regional heads), but only three were uncontested. In 2017, during the next wave of pilkada in 101 regions, nine races were uncontested. This represents a jump from 1.1 per cent to 9 per cent of pilkada in the years concerned. This new trend was enabled by a change in Indonesia's electoral regime sparked by a Constitutional Court decision in 2015 allowing such elections for the first time. Though this court case was a key enabling condition for the rise of uncontested elections, it begs the question of why potential challengers in some regions are abstaining from electoral competition.

In this article we explain the rise of uncontested races by focusing on two such elections in February 2017: one in the rural district (kabupaten) of Pati in Central Java, and another in Jayapura city, the capital of Papua province. Despite having histories of significant political competition, in both places only one pair of candidates was on the ballot in 2017. In both cases, these pairs were led by the incumbent local government head. Viewed in terms of their past electoral histories, there was no reason to expect uncompetitive elections in either Pati or Jayapura. In Pati, four candidate pairs had competed in the first pilkada held in the district in 2006, and six candidate pairs had competed in 2011. In Jayapura, two pairs had competed in 2005 and seven in 2011. The ferocity of competition in Pati in 2011 was also indicated by the fact that no candidate pair reached 30 per cent in that year, thus requiring a second round of balloting. Moreover, elections in both places were not only strongly contested, but they also led to bitter electoral disputes that were resolved only through Constitutional Court challenges.

In explaining the 2017 uncontested elections, we draw on literature that explains such races in other democratic countries. Most analyses suggest that elections are uncontested if an incumbent or, more rarely, some other candidate, has overwhelming political strength. This strength can have various sources, and is seen as exercising a deterrent effect on potential challengers: candidates or parties, as rational actors, decide not to waste resources joining races they are likely to lose. Elements of this explanation apply to Indonesia, and the rise of uncontested elections can be viewed as a reflection of the incumbency advantages that entrenched, financially well-resourced and successful regional government heads enjoy.

However, there was a considerable difference between the processes and mechanisms that produced the same outcome in the two locations: in Pati, rival candidates abandoned the competition as a result of a deterrence effect and after pre-electoral manoeuvring within the local political elite; in Jayapura, a set of harsher and even manipulative methods were used to prevent the registration of rival candidates. In both cases, there were potential rivals, but in Pati they were dissuaded from running; in Jayapura, they were prevented. We therefore argue that the rise of uncontested elections might not signify a decline in underlying political competitiveness, but rather a shift of that competition from the electoral arena to pre-electoral processes, whether through bargaining within the political elite or through the use of legal instruments to dispose of competition in advance.

Uncontested Elections and a New Electoral Regime

Uncontested elections are interesting in part because competition is usually assumed to be an essential feature of electoral democracy. The very idea of electoral competition assumes that more than one candidate will be presented to voters, allowing them to choose--and simultaneously to reject--candidates in keeping with their individual preferences. This act of choosing between alternative candidates, in other words, is a basic function of democratic citizenship. In Joseph A. Schumpeter's terms, the essence of democracy is that "the people have the opportunity of accepting or refusing the men who are to rule them". (1)

Of course, uncontested elections are not peculiar to Indonesia. They occur in numerous countries, including established democracies such as the United States, Canada and India, as well as less consolidated or transitional democracies like the Philippines or Poland. (2) Most explanations of the phenomenon come back to a core factor: the deterrent effects that arise when a candidate, usually but not always an incumbent, is seen as having insurmountable electoral strength. For example, in a study focusing on the US House of Representatives, Peverill Squire argues that such uncontested races usually occur when the sitting member won by a very large margin in the preceding election. (3) An incumbent who is very popular within the electorate can generate a "scare-off effect" whereby rival candidates and parties may decide not to expend resources on a competition they believe they are likely to lose. For such reasons, sole candidacy is often seen as being an expression of incumbency advantage. (4)

Of course, the ingredients contributing to an incumbent's electoral strength can vary. As well as past performance, the incumbent's likely electoral strength can be indicated by factors such as the results of opinion surveys, and the financial resources he or she is able to accumulate. Squire explains that, in the US context, a combination of major financial resources on the part of the incumbent, plus a large winning margin in the preceding election, is especially likely to give rise to a scare-off effect. (5) Similarly, in his research on local politics in the Philippines, John Sidel has pointed to other factors such as entrenched local clans and "bossism", which can provide particular candidates with unrivalled electoral advantages and a strong grip on local sources of political and economic strength. (6) In some cases, identity factors can play a role, as Michael Herron and Jasjeet Sekhon have explained with regard to ethnic preferences among African-American voters in the United States. (7)

Most existing literature, therefore, assumes that the critical driving factor behind uncontested elections is a deterrent effect produced by major electoral advantages on the part of the dominant party or candidate, generally an incumbent. When elections are predicted to be so uncompetitive that potential challengers have little or no chance of winning, those competitors themselves, whether parties or individual candidates, may decide to abstain. While we find that this analysis applies to Indonesia, we also show that incumbents can play an active role in this process, scaring off potential rivals not only through the mere fact of their electoral strength, but also by actively manipulating the rules of the political game. Indeed, the mere fact that there is an uncontested election does not necessarily point to the absence of competition: that competition may instead occur prior to election day and result in the political field being cleared of rivals before voting even starts. Our two cases, in fact, demonstrate two striking variations in the pattern. In Pati, the deterrent effect of strong electoral and financial strength on the part of the incumbent was certainly a factor, as was a process of negotiation and consensus building among critical local interest blocs--not least of which were political parties. This was a "soft" pathway towards sole candidacy. In Jayapura, by contrast, the same outcome was produced by a much tougher process that involved active manipulation of electoral rules and institutions and, notably, the use of the courts to block potential rivals.

Before we proceed with analysing our case studies, it is useful, however, to briefly review the institutional context. As already alluded to, uncontested races are a new phenomenon in Indonesia. During the first decade of pilkada from 2005 onwards, if there was only one candidate pair, the elections were simply postponed and, in rare cases, an acting regional head was appointed by the central government. In many cases, the impasse was avoided simply by putting forward a "puppet candidate" (calon boneka) who allowed the competition to proceed but never stood a chance of winning and was standing as a favour for, or even after payment from, an incumbent.

In 2015, the relevant legal regulation (articles 51 and 52 of the Law No. 8 of 2015 on local elections) stated that at least two candidate pairs had to be registered for an election to take place, and that registration should be reopened if a lesser number registered. When registrations in the 269 regions holding pilkada closed in late July 2015, 12 regions had only one candidate and one had none. The General Elections Commission (KPU) reopened registration three times, amid much controversy, but in the end three districts--Blitar, Tasikmalaya and North Central Timor--still had only a single candidate pair registered.

As such, it was initially decided that these three elections would be postponed to 2017, but a case was brought to the Constitutional Court which determined that elections with a single candidate pair were permissible after a second registration period, allowing these three regions to proceed with uncontested races. For the first time in the decade-long history of pilkada, uncontested elections were accommodated as an integral part of the electoral regime. For the 2017 round of pilkada, when the KPU opened candidate registrations on 21-23 September 2016, ten regions failed to come up with a second candidate pair, but unlike in 2015 this...

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