Indonesia: Constitutional Fiddling In Indonesia - Again


Dr Anthony L. Smith

For the fourth year running, Indonesia’s supreme legislative body, the MPR (Majelis Permusyawaratan Rakyat or People’s Consultative Assembly), has implemented a set of incremental changes to Indonesia’s Constitution. In August this year, the MPR finalised a number of decisions taken at the MPR’s annual session last year, notably provisions for a direct election for president, a constitutional court, and changes to the composition of the MPR. Rather than promulgate a new constitution, a step taken in recent years by nearby Thailand, law-makers seem content to make incremental changes to Indonesia’s 1945 Constitution – a document that has acquired some aura since independence despite having served the dictatorships of Soekarno and Soeharto. That said, the 2002 changes make, on paper, fundamental changes to Indonesia’s polity by bringing its eclectic half-presidential, half-parliamentary system in line with more conventional presidential models.

President Megawati Soekarnoputri’s Independence Day address on 16 August 2001 – just weeks after assuming the presidency – contained a surprise. Megawati urged the MPR to consider constitutional reform, which seemed to be a departure from what many thought was her undying attachment to the document that her father promulgated at independence. Megawati and her party, the PDI-P, had also made objections to the idea of direct presidential elections, and one can only guess that there is a fear that Indonesia’s largest party thinks that its leader cannot win such a contest. However, the 2002 annual session of the MPR removed its own power of presidential appointment and announced that a direct presidential election will be held in two rounds: with a second round for the top two candidates coming into play if the leading candidate does not reach 50% + 1 of the votes and a minimum of 20% in half of all provinces. Despite the fears of PDI-P, Megawati must surely, at a minimum, be in poll position to secure one of two leading positions for the second round. Other changes include: (a) clearer rules on the removal of the president – namely, only in the case of a breach of the Constitution or inappropriate moral behaviour – which are to be decided by the Constitutional Court; (b) the establishment of a Constitutional Court, which removes the power of constitutional interpretation from the MPR; (c) strengthening the independence of the electoral commission; and (d) altering the composition of the MPR to consist of the DPR (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat or House of Representatives) and the DPD (Dewan Perwakilan Daerah or House of Regional Representatives) after 2004. Not only is the MPR now much reduced in power, but the removal of appointed members removes a non-democratic element in the system. Notable, principally by its failure to gain traction, was an attempt to include the 'Jakarta Charter' in the Constitution, which would make explicit mention of the fact that Muslims are required to follow Syariah law. The amendment could not even gather a third of MPR members in support – the minimum necessary to place an amendment on the floor. In an embarrassing setback for hardline Islamist legislators, the issue was revealed to be a non-starter, even amongst the majority of Muslim law makers.

Rather than write a new constitution, Indonesia’s law makers have been content to fiddle with the existing 1945 Constitution – a document that was brief, designed to deliver power to the President, and only ever intended as an emergency measure for the independence struggle. What these latest amendments should achieve, in theory, is a set of checks and balances, based on the executive, legislature and judiciary, in line with democratic practice in more consolidated democracies around the world. Another change, following hard on the heels of the MPR’s amendments, was to abolish the 38 non-elected seats of the military and police faction in the DPR. At the very least, the non-democratic element of Indonesia’s legislature has been removed. All of these changes are important steps forward in Indonesia’s democratisation.

(The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. Policy, the position of The Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, U.S. Pacific Command, Department of Defense or any U.S. Governmental agency.)

WATCHPOINT: After the bombing in Bali on 12 October which dealt a blow to Indonesia's already fragile economy and which places the government under severe pressure to crack down on terrorist elements in the country, will there be the political will to continue democratising reforms – such as those needed to reform Indonesia's complex electoral system, which currently serves to deliver power to party elites based in Jakarta?


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