A preference for a better electoral system

David Stanford // Published April 2, 2009 in Jakarta Post

In this Jakarta Post Op-ed, David Stanford explains that Indonesians should not have to wait several months for their government to take office due to runoff elections, but instead should use instant runoff voting.

To select the composition of the House of Representatives and to choose the next President, Indonesian electors will go to the polls on two - and it can be a runoff in presidential election in September -- separate days over a period of five months. Does Indonesia need all of these elections?

On each of the three days, millions of Indonesians are engaged to assist the National Elections Commission (KPU) in administering the election across this vast archipelago. The sheer expense of overseeing these three polling days (it will come to over a billion US dollars for the 2009 poll) is a significant burden on the national budget.

Furthermore, the lengthy election season and seemingly endless campaign results in elector fatigue and apathy. In 2004, this was evidenced by a fall in participation by several percentage points in the second round of the presidential poll.

By September, most voters would like a government to be installed and tackling Indonesia's public policy challenges. Instead, under the current system, time and money is wasted as the top two presidential candidates continue to campaign for the job. The House of Representatives (DPR) members, to be elected on April 9, do know who will become President. Consequently, it cannot pursue its legislative agenda with certainty.

The current electoral system could be condensed in a way that still achieves a similarly fair and mutually acceptable result along with improved voter participation. Specifically, the second round of the presidential election could be foregone in a manner that still allows electors to express which of the top two candidates they prefer.

This would involve the replacement of the current presidential voting system with a preferential voting system called instant-runoff voting. Instant-runoff voting is currently used to elect the President of Ireland as well as members of the Australian House of Representatives.

Under this approach, electors would rank candidates for President in order of their preference. If no candidate receives a clear majority of first preference votes, the outcome is then determined by the flow of preferences. First, the candidate with lowest number of first preference votes is eliminated from the contest. The ballots that gave first preference to this eliminated candidate are then allocated to the remaining candidates according to who was the next preference on each ballot paper. This process is repeated until one candidate obtains a clear majority of votes.

Ostensibly, this system achieves the same outcome as a multi-round election on a single day. Voters make their choice clear with one ballot paper, at one polling station at one time. If their favourite candidate does not win, their preferences still influence the eventual result.

For Indonesia, there are many potential benefits to this system.

First, it would be cheaper. It eliminates the need for a five month long campaign and three different election days.

Second, it would be more efficient. The President and Legislature would be elected in the space of two, rather than five, months. This allows the government to get down to business with certainty rather than wasting time and money on campaigns.

Finally, it would improve voter participation. Increasingly apathetic Indonesian electors are more likely exercise their democratic right to choose their president if they can do so on a single day.

It is too late to enact this important reform for the 2009 election. However, it should be considered in the development of the 2014 election laws. Indonesia's democratic system is still young. Appropriate fine-tuning could improve it significantly.

The writer is an advocacy consultant to the Indonesian Consumers' Organisation (YLKI). He can be contacted at dave.ylki@gmail.com.