JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Indonesia's outgoing parliament voted Friday to scrap direct elections for local officials and return to the electoral system in place under dictator Suharto, triggering anger at what many regarded as a grave setback to democracy at the hands of an entrenched political elite.
The vote represents an early defeat for President-elect Joko Widodo, whose party lined up against the change, and suggests he will face a struggle to govern effectively. The bill was supported by a coalition of right-wing parties whose candidate was narrowly defeated in July's presidential elections and is vowing to disrupt the Widodo administration.
Direct elections for mayors, regents and governors began in 2005 and were seen as a major part of Indonesia's democratic transition after the 1998 fall of Suharto dictatorship. The change came about because of complaints that the old system, where regional legislatures chose local leaders, had returned generations of corrupt and inefficient administrations beholden to the country's equally graft-ridden political parties.
After hours of debate and backroom dealings, a majority of lawmakers approved the bill early Friday morning, returning the country to the pre-2005 system. The party of outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who earlier in the week said he supported direct elections, walked out ahead of the vote, allowing it to pass.
"Taking away the people's right to choose their leader is a blatant betrayal of public trust and sidelines them from the democratic process altogether, rendering all the progress and costs of the last 10 years futile," The Jakarta Globe daily said in an editorial. "Indonesia has returned to a system of elitist democracy controlled by a handful of corrupt politicians serving only their own interests."
The president, who prior to 2005 was also chosen by lawmakers, will continue to be directly elected.
A network of pro-democracy activists has already said they will challenge the change at the Constitutional Court, which has the power to overrule parliament.
Much of the anger Friday was directed at Yudhoyono and his party. Speaking in Washington, Yudhoyono said he was "disappointed" that the vote had passed and that the government was also considering appealing. He failed to explain why his party didn't follow his apparent wishes and vote against the bill.
Yudhoyono "plays the statesman abroad while pulling the plug on democratic elections at home. The world should wake up," tweeted Sidney Jones, a respected Indonesian expert.
The bill was pushed by the "Red-and-White" coalition of losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, a Suharto-era general.
Its members said change was needed because direct elections were expensive and more prone to producing corrupt leaders than the old system. Civil society activists and progressive voices had disputed this, saying the parties themselves could implement campaign finance laws to lessen costs and that they played a major role in the corruption in the direct elections.
Widodo and several other previously little-known politicians have risen to power via direct regional elections after appealing directly to voters, loosening the grip of the major political parties.
"It is hard not to view this bill as a blunt political manoeuver to return electoral authority from the people to party leadership in the face of electoral defeat in the presidential election," Andrew Thornley, an Indonesian election expert at the Asia Foundation, wrote in a blog post Thursday.
Several independent opinion polls had shown a clear majority of Indonesians were in favor of keeping the direct elections.