Indonesia's highest legislative body, the People's Consultative Assembly, is considering changes to the country's constitution. Among the proposals are direct presidential elections.
Hundreds of students demonstrate outside the gates of Indonesia's main legislative building. They want legislators from the People's Consultative Assembly meeting inside to push through constitutional reforms seen by many as key to democratic change in the country. Pro-reform groups say the constitution is vague and contradictory. It was written in 1945 as Indonesia fought for independence from its Dutch colonizers. Indonesia's founding fathers intended for the constitution to be reviewed once the country's institutions were in place. That never happened. Some say former President Suharto, who ruled for more than 30 years, took advantage of the constitution's weaknesses to contain his opposition.
James Van Zorge, who is with the Jakarta risk analysis firm Van Zorge, Heffernan and Associates, explains, "The 1945 Constitution was pretty much a carte blanche document that gave for Suharto the ability to hang onto power for more than three decades. There are no provisions for limited term for the presidency. There were no provisions for a direct vote, for either the MPR or for the president. So it was a formula that was well-suited for an authoritarian government to come to power." According to analysts, it is likely the MPR this year will approve direct presidential elections, four years after Mr. Suharto was forced from power. Currently, Indonesians vote for political parties to sit in the Parliament. Then the MPR, which is made up of Parliament plus other appointed members, elects the president and vice president. Mr. Van Zorge stresses out that a direct election could bring great change. "That's the first time you have a president who would feel there's a sense of accountability towards the Indonesian public, and you'd see a president taking some bold moves with respect to reform. Until then I don't see a president doing that because they'll feel beholden to the MPR," he explains. Some analysts say the MPR is making progress in key areas such as withdrawing Indonesia's powerful armed forces from politics. Two years ago, lawmakers said the military would remain in the Assembly until 2009. That process seems to have accelerated and the military could be out of both Parliament and the Assembly by 2004. Andrew Ellis, a senior analyst at the National Democratic Institute in Jakarta, a U.S. government funded organization that supports democratic reform, has been monitoring the debate at the Assembly. "On the military issue," he notes, "we saw yesterday the head of the military group here in the Assembly saying quite clearly, 'We believe our job is defense and security and not politics - and we therefore do not believe that our members belong in either the Assembly or the legislature from now on.' " Still, critics say the reforms being deliberated in the Assembly do not go far enough. They want the debate to include more of the issues that affect most Indonesians such as the country's endemic corruption and its bad track record on human rights. Hadar Gumay, who is with the Center for Electoral Reform, an umbrella group of dozens of private organizations and civil society groups, says, "If we realize that this country has a big problem on corruption, for example, and if this country has a big problem on human rights violations for example, why don't they put this commission, anti-corruption commission, for example in the constitutional level? Inside our constitution? Why they don't they put the human rights commission on the constitutional level?" Once the amendments on elections and the military are passed, more work must be done. Changes have to be made to the Constitution's by-laws so there are no legal contradictions. Supporting legislation has to be passed to properly enact amendments. Passing that legislation may not be easy. The MPR wants that job. But Mr. Gumay says the right to compose the laws should belong to the public through a constitutional commission. That way, he says, the MPR will be forced to commit to the promises it made and act on the reforms. Otherwise, he says, the entire reform process could be delayed.