Elections Boost Trust in Indonesia’s Constitutional Court

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September 3, 2014

On August 21, millions of Indonesian voters watched live as the Constitutional Court Chief Judge, Hamdan Zoelva, read the conclusion of the Court’s 300-page decision of the 2014 presidential election results dispute. The court rejected on all counts the challenge from presidential and vice presidential candidate, Prabowo Subianto and Hatta Rajasa, officially declaring Joko Widodo president. Outside, around 40 thousand police officers guarded the court in case protests mounted. But, the police seemed to outnumber protesters, and aside from some skirmishes, the event signaled the country’s readiness to move on from a toxic and tiring election campaign. It was a proud moment for the Constitutional Court and its ability to deliver justice in a fair and democratic manner.

Indonesia's Constitutional Court

Police guard the entrance to Indonesia’s Constitutional Court days before it announced the decision of the 2014 presidential election results dispute. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

Just a month before, on July 22, 2014, the Indonesia National Election Commission announced the final results from the presidential election, with Joko Widodo and Jusuf Kalla gaining 70,997,833 votes and Prabowo Subianto and Hatta Rajasa gaining 62,576,444 votes. A few hours before the final results were announced, Prabowo held a press conference at his campaign headquarters to declare that he and his team were withdrawing from the process. This incident was followed by the walkout of their representatives at the National Election Commission. Just hours before the July 25 deadline for submitting disputes to the Constitutional Court, Prabowo’s legal team registered their case in which they requested the Court to cancel the General Election Commission’s (KPU) decision and demanded a reelection. Prabowo’s team cited these issues among others: a miscount of the results by the KPU, partisan local government bureaucracy, and fraud surrounding the higher number of unregistered voters who were still able to vote using IDs.

In the early stages of the presidential election results dispute process at the Court, many Indonesians strongly questioned the credibility of the Constitutional Court and whether it could deliver. Just a year ago, in early October, the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) found the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court at that time, Akil Mochtar, guilty of accepting bribes to influence rulings on local election results. On June 30, he was sentenced to life behind bars, the heaviest penalty ever seen in Indonesia for corruption.

Since that time, public trust in the Court has been declining significantly. One prominent survey company, the Indonesian Survey Circle, found that one week after the scandal, public trust in the Constitutional Court dropped by 37 percent to only 28 percent, compared to 65.5 percent in March 2013.

Despite this, the findings show that the 2014 Indonesia Elections have served as great momentum for the Constitutional Court to regain its credibility. Another survey conducted by Cyrus Network showed that on March 2014, one month ahead of Indonesia’s legislative elections, the level of public trust in the Constitutional Court was 35.8 percent, a slight increase from the figure in October 2013. With the turmoil of the presidential election results dispute behind us, political party leaders as well as some civil society organizations have publically declared high expectation of the Constitutional Court’s ability to fully recover after a troubling year of scandals and internal problems.

Indonesia’s Constitutional Court was established in 2003 following the 3rd Amendment to the 1945 Constitution – one of the many justice sector reforms implemented following the fall of the New Order regime. One of its most important roles is to resolve election results disputes. The Court has become the final place for parties and candidates to appeal for justice on election results. Thousands of dispute cases from national and local elections have been submitted to the Constitutional Court since 2004, including 903 cases from the 2014 legislative elections alone. Decisions on those cases have been considered fair and have gone through close examination by Constitutional Court judges and staff. However, the Akil Mochtar scandal saw the credibility of the Court fall to its lowest level.

The focus was back on the Constitutional Court when Prabowo’s legal team made the decision to challenge the results of the presidential election. There were serious concerns over the impartiality of the Court because of the political background of two of the judges: Chief Justice Hamdan Zoelva was a leader of the Star Crescent Party (PBB), which is the same party as one of the expert witnesses (Yusril Ihza Mahendra) put forward by Prabowo’s camp; and Patrialis Akbar was a leader of the National Mandate Party (PAN), the same party as Prabowo’s vice-presidential running mate, Hatta. The latest survey from the Indonesian Survey Circle conducted on August 7 found that 78.11 percent of respondents expected that the Constitutional Court decision “could end tensions over the presidential election result.” At the end of that day, on August 21, the Constitutional Court regained its credibility: all nine judges unanimously agreed to reject the case with no dissenting opinions. Many people had predicted that the Court would reject the case due to its weak argument and poor quality of evidence.

The Constitutional Court decision boosted hope in the Court’s ability to defend democracy in Indonesia. Soon the Court will be tested again with the critical judicial review of the amendments to the law on legislative bodies, known as the MD3. The five amendments, which would regulate the structure and procedures of Indonesia’s national and regional legislatures, were rushed through the House of Representatives on the eve of the election. The changes will ensure that the parties backing Prabowo will be able to secure the speaker’s chair in the House of Representatives, and includes a number of other controversial components, such as provisions on the investigation of legislators for corruption. Several civil society organizations have submitted requests to the court to conduct a judicial review due to a number of changes that would damage efforts to make the houses of representatives more accountable, transparent, and gender sensitive. Could the Constitutional Court now make another breakthrough decision?

Natalia Warat is a program officer for The Asia Foundation in Indonesia. She can be reached at natalia.warat@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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