Principles of Democracy: Free, Fair, Regular, and Representative Elections

Elections allow voters to pass judgement and express their will on the government. How elections are designed and how their results are determined are fundamental to any country’s democracy. Thus, it should be regularly and carefully debated through a democratic process, with the design updated as flaws become apparent.

This article is part of our Principles of Democracy series. Read our introduction article to find out, “What is Southeast Asian Democracy?”

“Getting us to vote is just one step of the process. We need the youths to get out there and express our voice through the ballot, but the election is not the end goal. After the election, we have to keep working hard, with or without the support from political parties, to achieve the society we want to live in.” 

Sirabhob “Raptor” Attohi, student and one of the lead organisers of the 2020-2021 Thai pro-democracy movement protests.

At its most basic, elections allow voters to pass judgement and express their will on their government, providing the opportunity to change their leaders. But the role of elections in a democracy is so much more. Free, fair, and regular elections give people the opportunity to look back and evaluate the past, debate the future, approve policies for the country, address wrongs, and/or protest the limitation of their rights. Elections are key to establishing voters’ and the individual’s political rights and legitimising the government. They are the ongoing representation of self-determination and the consent of the governed. Thus, for elections to serve their role properly, they need to be understood as more than just a vote that takes place once every few years.

Around the world, millions of people have braved violence, intimidation, and other obstacles to demand the right to express their will through the ballot box. Often, students and youth have played leading roles in this worldwide epic, such as the Otpor movement in Serbia, which helped to overthrow the dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, or the Iranian Green Revolution, which protested the stealing of elections in 2009. Southeast Asians too have fought and died for the right to elect their own leaders. In the colonial period, activists and intellectuals across the Dutch East Indies, Malaya, the Philippines, and Burma demanded the right to choose their own leaders, with colonial refusals leading to protests and strikes that were often violently repressed. Demands for free and fair elections were part of pro-democracy protests in Timor-Leste from 1974 to 1999, the Philippines in 1986 (People Power), Indonesia in 1998, Malaysia from 2005-2016 (Bersih), and in West Papua from 1962 to present.

“The will of the people […] shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 21

In Southeast Asia, the principle that elections have to be held to reflect the people’s will and legitimise a government is a principle accepted by every Southeast Asian government, even in Brunei, where it is more honoured in the breach than in the observance. However, other aspects of elections are respected to lesser degrees, and sometimes not at all. Consequently, while every Southeast Asian government holds elections, they tend to be unfree, unfair, and irregular. At the most extreme is Brunei, an absolute monarchy. It only has elections to an advisory legislative council, which have not been held since 1965. The 1959 constitution gave the Sultan executive authority but also introduced elections to the advisory legislative council in the hopes of giving a regressive system a veneer of democracy. When the left-wing Brunei People’s Party (BPP), which aspired to overthrow the monarchy, gained all 10 of the council’s elected seats in 1962, Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien III promptly invalidated the results and no elections have ever been held since. Officially, the elections are merely suspended due to an ongoing state of “emergency”, hence preserving the fiction that elections are the normal state of affairs.

Likewise, among Southeast Asian countries which do hold elections, they tend to be held merely to fulfil their role of legitimising the government, without actually reflecting the will of the people. In Cambodia, elections are outright rigged and opposition politicians excluded. In Vietnam and Laos, elections are either limited to within the governing party or only the governing party may field candidates. In Thailand, Myanmar, and Singapore, elections are designed to maximise the outcome for the political establishment. This includes limits on who may run, the limitation of some seats to specific groups, how candidates are chosen, and the structure of the resultant legislature. In Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, elections are reasonably free but not entirely fair and have been heavily distorted by the influence of money. In Timor-Leste, elections are free and fair but have been marred by violence. Thus, many Southeast Asian governments hold elections to legitimise their government as ostensibly reflecting the will of the people but do not actually permit the will of the people to express itself. 

Elections are thus far more than just the act of voting. For elections to serve their purpose, they must be genuinely representative of the people. But a simple vote is inherently unfair as it advantages those with more time, resources, and privilege who have a greater ability to campaign, organise, and influence outcomes. An electoral system has to be carefully designed so that it is actually representative. Elections must take into account a wide range of factors and interests, some of which may be conflicting. Electoral systems must also consider the structure of the body it produces: What is the purpose of this body? Who is it meant to represent? How will it function? There is no one perfect way to run an election or design an elected body, but for the results to be respected and the system to function, we must have as much agreement as possible among voters that it is a reasonably fair and representative system. But as a corollary to that, just as no election is perfect, so too must we understand that elections are not meant to be decisive or final. Elections can never produce perfect results. On the contrary, elections should be seen as the first step of democratic governance. While it is tempting to treat elections as final or definitive (and many people do), we argue that democracy is a continuing process in which an election is merely an opening statement in a negotiation between different viewpoints, interest groups, and positions

Artwork by Karin Josephine.

Why Hold Elections

For elections to be well-designed, we need to first ask why we hold elections, and what the goals of holding elections are. Well-designed elections should achieve at least the following goals:

Representation and Legitimacy

Elections are a way for voters to choose their representatives who will make decisions on their behalf in the government. This ensures that the government reflects the will and preferences of the people. Thus, elections must provide a level playing field for all candidates and political parties to ensure that the election outcome reflects the true preferences of the electorate. 

When this is achieved, elections provide a sense of legitimacy to the government. When a government is elected through a fair and transparent process, it is more likely to be seen as legitimate by the voters and the international community. Moreover, the legitimacy conferred by free and fair elections can help mitigate the risk of civil unrest or violence, as voters are more likely to accept the outcome of an election they perceive as fair.

Good Governance, Adaptability, and Innovation

Well-designed elections promote good governance by incentivising elected officials to be responsive to the needs and aspirations of their constituents. Elected officials who are accountable to the electorate are more likely to prioritise the public interest, implement effective policies, and govern responsibly, as their success at the ballot box depends on their performance in office. If they fail to do so, they may lose popular support and be replaced in the next election. 

Free and fair elections also allow democracies to adapt and evolve in response to changing societal needs and circumstances. As societies grow and develop, new challenges and opportunities arise. To win elections, political parties and candidates are incentivised to develop new policy ideas and innovative solutions to address the challenges facing their communities and nations. 

The priorities of the electorate may also shift. Regular, competitive elections provide a mechanism for voters to express their preferences and elect leaders who are best suited to address these evolving needs. By facilitating this process of adaptation, free and fair elections contribute to the resilience and dynamism of democratic systems, enabling them to remain relevant and effective in an ever-changing world.

Accountability

Regular elections enable voters to hold their representatives accountable for their actions and performance. If representatives fail to deliver on their promises or do not represent their constituents well, they can be voted out of office during the next election. This provides a check on the power of elected officials and ensures that no single individual or group can dominate the political landscape indefinitely. 

In contrast, in systems where elections are not free and fair, corruption can flourish, as politicians may feel less accountable to the electorate and more focused on serving their own interests or those of a select few. By ensuring the integrity of the electoral process, free and fair elections can help curb corruption, promote transparency, and foster a culture of accountability in government.

Political Stability

Regular elections can contribute to political stability by providing a peaceful and orderly means of transferring power between political parties or leaders. By conducting regular, credible elections, democratic societies can avoid the instability and conflict often associated with undemocratic transitions or seizures of power. 

Free and fair elections also help to build a culture of political tolerance by encouraging voters to accept and respect the legitimacy of differing opinions and viewpoints. In a competitive electoral environment, parties and candidates must engage in debates, present their policy platforms, and appeal to a diverse range of voters. A well-designed process fosters a culture of dialogue, compromise, and collaboration, where voters learn to recognise the importance of pluralism and the value of engaging with those who hold different perspectives, with the aim of achieving a positive-sum environment and win-win rather than winner-takes-all solutions or those which demand the sacrifice of a minority to benefit the majority.

Political Participation

Free and fair elections encourage civic engagement by providing voters with an opportunity to participate in the political process. Voting is a fundamental expression of political agency, and when voters believe that their vote matters, they are more likely to be engaged in the broader political process. Civic engagement is essential for a healthy democracy, as it fosters a sense of shared responsibility and encourages voters to be informed about the issues that affect their lives. By participating in elections, voters can develop a deeper understanding of the political landscape, build relationships with their elected representatives, and contribute to the development of their communities. Through the electoral process, voters are exposed to different policy platforms, political ideologies, and debates on key issues. This fosters political education and awareness, enabling individuals to make informed choices at the ballot box.

Inclusive electoral processes that ensure the participation of marginalised and underrepresented groups, such as gender minorities, ethnic minorities, and persons with disabilities, can strengthen the overall quality of democracy by giving a voice to a broader range of perspectives and experiences. This inclusivity can lead to more equitable policy outcomes and help to address historical injustices and social inequalities. For this reason, we have also deliberately referred to voters, not citizens. While all citizens must be able to vote, voting should not necessarily be limited to citizens. Across the world, suffrage (the right to vote) has been extended to non-citizen residents in many countries, in acknowledgement that they have the right to have a voice in decisions which affect them. 

Compromise

Ultimately, as noted above, it is impossible for elections to be truly representative of all views and interest groups. Instead, elections should be seen as the first compromise out of the many necessary for a government to run a country. Elections themselves are thus part of the process of governance.

In summary, well-designed elections aim to ensure representation, foster good governance and innovation, promote stability, and encourage political participation, among many other benefits.

 

Artwork by Karin Josephine.

How Elections Work: Some Common Concepts

How do we design elections to meet these needs? Every country is unique and the electoral system has to meet unique requirements. This section describes some common – but by no means only – ways in which elections are run.

The majority of democracies have chosen to establish parliamentary systems, in which elections for the legislature also determine the party in control of the executive branch. Examples are found in the UK and throughout the former British Empire, such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. This means that the party (or coalition of parties) with a majority of seats in parliament forms the government, and the head of the legislature is also the leader of the executive branch (usually called the “Prime Minister”). Examples of this in Southeast Asia are the Thai, Malaysian, Singaporean, and Timorese parliaments. There are occasions of minority parties or coalitions forming governments, but even then they typically need to achieve majority support in parliament. There may also be a separate head of state (e.g. a monarch or a president) who does not exercise executive power. The head of state may be elected or appointed, but ultimately their role is constitutionally limited.

In a presidential system, such as in the United States, or a mixed presidential-parliamentary system, such as in France and Poland, there are separate elections for the head of the executive branch (often called the “President”) and the legislature. Examples in Southeast Asia include the Indonesian and Filipino governments. Although parliamentary systems may reflect more directly the citizens’ will, presidential or mixed systems may provide greater checks and balances on the exercise of power as executive power is divided from legislative power (see also Checks and Balances, forthcoming).

A country may also use different systems at different levels, e.g. a national parliamentary system but a presidential system for cities (elected mayors) or conversely a presidential system nationally but a parliamentary system for local councils.

There are two main types of electoral systems: proportional and direct. In proportional systems, seats in parliament are apportioned according to the percentage of the vote a party receives nationally or in regions. In direct elections, the winner of a seat is determined by a majority or plurality vote in specific districts, usually divided proportionally to the population. But there are many variations on these systems, and many countries use a combination of proportional and direct systems for their elections. In Southeast Asia, among parliamentary systems, Malaysia’s Dewan Rakyat (House of Representatives) and Singapore’s Parliament are elected by direct vote, while Timor-Leste’s Parlamento Nacional (National Parliament) is by proportional representation. 

For balance, some countries have two separate bodies elected through different systems. Malaysia’s Parliament, for example, is bicameral (two chambers), with an upper chamber called a Senate, while Singapore’s and Timor-Leste’s are unicameral, with only one chamber.

Among the presidential systems, Indonesia’s bicameral government is a mixture: the lower house, the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat (DPR, People’s Representative Council), is elected via proportional representation, while the upper house, the Dewan Perwakilan Daerah (DPD, Regional Representative Council), is elected via direct vote. The Philippines’ House of Representatives uses both systems: direct voting in 80% of seats, and proportional representation in 20%, while its Senate is chosen by electing the top 12 vote winners in the entire country, but only half of the Senate up for election every three years. 

Thus, even in very similar countries and systems, there are huge variations in how governments are elected. Ultimately, there is no perfect system. Every system has flaws and potentially over-represents or under-represents some people. Thus the central question facing citizens is, given the local context of the country, what is the most representative and fairest system that ensures the achievement of the goals above?

Even if such a system is achieved, the degree of participation in the system then raises complex questions. For example, should a turnout of less than 50% be considered a valid expression of the people’s will? Should a plurality of the vote be sufficient to determine the majority in the parliament or the executive office of the president? Should there be a threshold vote for a party to enter the parliament or should any party receiving votes be able to have a seat? There are no simple answers. Often, these decisions depend on a country’s political history and culture. Regrettably, these questions are more often determined based on the desire to manipulate an election’s outcome or gain an advantage.

Artwork by Karin Josephine.

Free, Fair, Regular, and Representative

We know how elections are usually run, but how should elections be run? We propose four goals that have to be met for elections to reflect the will of the people: that they are free, fair, regular, and representative.

Free

Elections must be free, in the sense that voters can freely choose their representatives. It’s crucial for the legitimacy of democratic governance and for ensuring that elected officials are truly representative of and accountable to their constituents. To ensure that an election is free, there must be universal suffrage. This means that everyone should have the right to vote regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, physical disability, sexual orientation, property considerations, or level of education. Universal suffrage also means that there can be no burdensome impediments against any voter registration or casting a ballot (such as a poll tax or fee). The ideal outcome is to have maximum participation in elections of all eligible voters. 

It should be noted that the principle of universal suffrage is distinct from the principle of one person, one vote. The latter applies more to political systems with direct representation. But both principles mean that everyone qualified has a right to vote and no person’s vote can be counted twice or be more valued than another person’s vote.

In a free election, every voter should have an equal opportunity to vote, be able to make their choice without facing coercion, intimidation, or undue influence, and have their vote counted accurately. The voting process should be transparent, fair, and not manipulated to favour any particular outcome or candidate. For example, electoral laws must offer equal conditions and opportunities for voters to have access to polling stations, including voters who are not residents of the country. There should not be barriers such as literacy tests or poll taxes. Votes should be secret—if a voter’s choice is observable by others, voters may be subject to intimidation and reprisals by the party in power or by a party seeking power. More generally, voters should not be threatened, bribed, or otherwise coerced, whether before or after the election. Election processes, from voter registration to vote counting, should be transparent. Independent observers, both domestic and international, should be allowed to monitor the process. All candidates should have equal access to state and private media to present their platforms and views. The vote must be secret and reliable, with good public confidence in the integrity of the ballot. Votes should be counted in a timely and transparent manner, with results announced as soon as they are verified. One crucial way this is achieved is through welcoming the participation of civil society (both local and international) in the process, allowing them to give feedback on the design and monitor the voting process.

It is important to note that elections are not free by default, because voters are not born with the knowledge of how to access their voting rights, and the voting process can change from election to election. Voters also live in different circumstances which may make it difficult for them to vote. Election authorities must work hard to create the conditions for elections to be free. For example, voter education is crucial to ensuring that the electorate is well-informed about the voting process, their rights, and the candidates’ platforms. Voters should be automatically registered and not unreasonably struck off the list of registered voters. The list of registered voters must be kept up-to-date and accurate to prevent fraudulent voting.

In Southeast Asia, this principle is undermined by authoritarian governments in a number of common ways:

  1. Restricting or manipulating media coverage to favour the ruling party, suppress opposition voices, portray opposition parties and politicians in a negative light, or spread false information about the electoral process or opposition candidates. This occurs in virtually every Southeast Asian country, with only Timor-Leste having a reasonably free press. For instance, the 2022 election in the Philippines was distorted by a sustained disinformation campaign. Until recently, most Southeast Asian countries were in the bottom half of the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index. Although Malaysia has made some strides in the 2023 index ranking, it remains far behind Timor-Leste. 
  2. Voter intimidation via threats, violence, or other forms of coercion to influence voters’ choices. This includes the punishment of voters who vote against the governing People’s Action Party in Singapore through the withdrawal of public services and funding, or outright threats of violence in the Philippines.
  3. Fraud, tampering, or returning fake results. After almost 14 years of martial law, where he ruled as a dictator, President Ferdinand Marcos called an election for President in 1986. In the election, the Commission on Elections (COMELEC), declared Marcos the winner, with 10,807,197 votes against Corazon Aquino’s 9,291,761 votes. On the other hand, based on returns of 70% of the precincts of the National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL), an accredited poll watcher, had Aquino winning with 7,835,070 votes against Marcos’s 7,053,068 votes. The vote was marred by widespread reports of violence, vote buying, fraud, and tampering of election results, culminating in the walkout of 30 COMELEC computer technicians to protest the deliberate manipulation of the official election results to favour Marcos. The walkout was one of the early “sparks” of the People Power Revolution, which led to the overthrow of Marcos. 
  4. Restricting and excluding candidates. Only members of certain political parties are allowed to run; Other parties are dissolved; Other candidates are legally not permitted to run, arrested, intimidated, run out of the country, or outright murdered (e.g. Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore). Cambodia has aggressively jailed opposition politicians in recent years. The main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was dissolved in 2017, and its leader, Kem Sokha, was arrested and jailed on charges of treason. This effectively left the CPP without significant competition, leading many to view the election as neither free nor fair. In 2023, the main opposition, the Candlelight Party and the Khmer United Great Nation Party, were not permitted to contest the general election, resulting in the governing Cambodian People’s Party winning 120 out of 125 seats.
  5. Gerrymandering, i.e. the redrawing of electoral boundaries to favour a particular party or group. This is another favoured tactic, particularly aggressively done in Singapore. The Elections Department (which is not independent but is part of the Prime Minister’s Office) redraws the boundaries of the elections just before every election in ways which clearly favour the governing party, leaving opposition parties very little time to adjust to the new boundaries. In the last two general elections, around 20% of voters woke up to find themselves in completely different constituencies. The Malaysian electoral map has also been criticised for having unrepresentative boundaries, with boundaries that cut across natural communities, some constituencies being almost double the sizes of others, and boundaries drawn to benefit the governing party. Interestingly, the Federal Constitution does allow larger rural constituencies to be given more “weight” (i.e. have fewer voters) than an urban constituency as a way to correct for logistical challenges (see below).
  6. Erecting barriers for certain groups or individuals to register to vote or to actually vote, thereby limiting their participation. This may be physical (e.g. difficulty in accessing the means to register), financial (e.g. a cost associated with registering or voting), regulatory (e.g. onerous demands for proof of identification), or otherwise.
  7. Controlling electoral commissions to maximise or even ensure outcomes favourable to the ruling party. In Singapore, for example, the Elections Department frequently imposes new rules around political advertising and campaigning which apply to all parties but clearly advantage the governing People’s Action Party, which is best able to take advantage of the new rules. In 2020, for example, it filed a police report against New Naratif for “unauthorised elections advertising” for boosting posts on Facebook even though the government-controlled media also engaged in the exact same behaviour and no rules were broken.
  8. Restricting or banning independent observers, which can prevent the detection of irregularities or fraud. The transparency of the electoral processes is essential. In the 1986 Philippines presidential election, for example, it was the non-partisan National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL) which exposed the attempted manipulation of the election results. In Singapore and other countries, vote counting is monitored by citizen volunteers nominated by candidates’ parties, which is essential due to the subjectivity to which ballots may be marked by voters to express their intent and the different ways that may be adjudicated at counting centres by different counting officials.

There is significant overlap between a “free” and a “fair” election (see below), with many of the same rules contributing to making an election both “free” and “fair”.

Fair

Elections are usually not “fair” by default, because incumbent governments and wealthy candidates always start with an advantage. But for elections to fulfil their purpose, they must be fair, in that all candidates are allowed equal opportunities to campaign and make their case to the voters, the rules are applied consistently to everyone, and no individual or group has an undue advantage or faces undue obstacles. 

Electoral bodies thus must work hard to overcome the inherent privilege enjoyed by the powerful and wealthy. The electoral process should provide an equal and unbiased opportunity for all parties and candidates to compete. Such equality, for example, requires the ability of political parties and candidates to register for elections without unreasonable requirements (such as special fees or certain qualifications); that they have balanced access to state resources and to the media; that laws governing the financing of campaigns are the same for all candidates and do not give one candidate or party an unequal advantage or permit undue influence by wealthy individuals or groups; and that the electoral process is fair and not skewed toward a party or candidate. The body conducting the election (e.g. the electoral commission) should be independent and neutral, ensuring that the election process is conducted without bias. 

Most crucially, how elections are designed can easily favour one group or another. The method used to translate votes into seats (e.g., first-past-the-post, proportional representation) should be considered in the context of the country’s political landscape to ensure it does not inherently favour one group over another. Other important considerations include ballot design (ballots should be designed in a way that is clear and doesn’t lead or confuse voters), fair districting (electoral boundaries should be drawn impartially, without favouring one party or group over another), voter registration (all eligible voters, including marginalised groups, must be able to vote), and protection against disinformation (efforts must be made to counter false information that can mislead voters about candidates, parties, or the voting process). Overall, political freedoms of expression, association, and assembly must be protected so that candidates and parties can campaign without hindrance, and have the opportunity to convey their political messages and platforms to the voters. 

Sometimes prompting fairness may mean the election being designed in a counterintuitive way. One example is Malaysia. In 1957, Malaya’s rural areas were harder to access than urban ones. With its population spread out across a large area, a rural constituency would have to cover a significantly larger area than an urban constituency in order to have the same number of voters as the urban constituency. However, at some point the constituency may simply get too big to be practical –  hence, a rural weightage clause was written into the Federal Constitution, which granted an exception to permit such a constituency to have fewer voters:

“…having regard to the greater difficulty of reaching electors in the country districts and the other disadvantages facing rural constituencies, a measure of weightage for area ought to be given to such constituencies.”

Section 2(c) of the Thirteenth Schedule of the Malaysian Constitution

However, in the most recent redelineation exercise in 2018, the Election Commission (mis)interpreted this to mean that rural constituencies should automatically have fewer voters in proportion to urban constituencies, merely because they are rural constituencies—thus giving rural votes greater weight. If the rural weightage rule was applied properly, we would expect all constituencies to have approximately the same number of voters, with the exception of the largest rural constituencies, which would have slightly fewer voters. In practice, rural weightage is applied to rural constituencies regardless of size, and rural constituencies are smaller than urban ones on average. But with the internet and the automobile, is the principle itself still necessary? Are there genuine difficulties reaching rural voters? Whether fairness requires certain segments to be over-represented in the electoral system is something Malaysians must decide.

Finally, for democracy to work, everyone must agree to accept the legitimate results of freely held elections. This requires an independent and transparent system for running the election. It is not enough that an election is fair on paper; voters must believe that the election is fair. This requires an independent authority to run the election and return the results. Likewise, even in a fair system, mistakes can happen. There must also be an impartial system for challenging the results, with an independent judiciary to hear legal challenges. Ultimately, the people and parties who lose power or who have failed to gain it must have faith that the system is fair and impartial, and must be willing to accept defeat. If the loser refuses to accept the winner, the election’s legitimacy is diminished and the political system is likely to be marked by conflict and instability. A key test for a democracy is the successful and peaceful transfer of power from one party to another. Indeed, this is a continuous test for any democracy, even established ones.

In Southeast Asia, elections are often unfair. In addition to the tactics listed in the previous section, other tactics used to tilt the playing field and maximise outcomes for the governing party include:

  1. Giving the ruling party disproportionate access to state resources during election campaigns. This includes the media, logistics (e.g. drawing volunteers from government-affiliated organisations or incentivising volunteers with government-provided benefits), and infrastructure (e.g. spaces for campaign events).
  2. Designing or modifying electoral systems to favour the ruling party. This is most notable in Thailand, where the military designed the electoral system to ensure that it would have a permanent influence on the system. This was successful in the 2023 election, where the leader of the party which won the election, Pita Limjaroenrat of the Move Forward Party, was unable to win the vote to become Prime Minister. The runner-up Pheu Thai party then formed an alliance with conservative, pro-military parties to successfully nominate one of its candidates, Srettha Thavisin, as Prime Minister.
  3. Voter suppression by implementing measures that make it harder for certain groups—often those likely to support the opposition—to vote. (see above)
  4. Ensuring that the bodies overseeing elections are loyal to the ruling party, which can lead to biased decision-making. (see above)
  5. Utilising state-controlled media or other tools to spread false information about the opposition or the electoral process. (see above)

In essence, a “fair” election is one where the playing field is level, and where voters can make informed choices without facing undue obstacles or biases. It’s a cornerstone of genuine democratic governance.

Artwork by Karin Josephine.

Regular 

Elections should be held on a set, predictable schedule known to the electorate, either on a specified day or range of dates or within a particular time frame. Setting regular intervals for elections provides predictability, which is essential for political stability. Voters, political actors, and other entities can plan and operate knowing when the next electoral test will be. Regularly scheduled elections also establish a democratic norm and act as a safeguard against potential authoritarian tendencies. Leaders might think twice about postponing or cancelling elections if there’s a strong norm and expectation for regular polls.

How regular, and on what schedule, differs from context to context. Some systems require elections to be held within four or five years from the previous election, but they may be called earlier as determined by the party or coalition of parties in the majority. This gives the ruling party some advantage in setting the date, and a common tactic by a government trying to game the system is to unexpectedly call a general election at the smallest legally permitted time before the vote (a “snap election”). This is a typical tactic by Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party government, for example, which has only called elections at or near the legal minimum advance notice since the 1970s. This gives other parties a minimum amount of time to prepare for the election. Unpredictable elections can cause uncertainty and inherently favour incumbents, and thus should be avoided. Of course, this does not preclude unexpected elections that occur because a government loses a vote of no confidence or otherwise collapses. 

Other systems set the period at specific intervals. Indonesia, for example, currently holds elections for its entire government every five years – although amendments have been proposed – while the Philippines holds elections every three years for the entire House of Representatives and half of the Senate.

Holding elections at set, predictable intervals benefits democracy and governance as it ensures that the government remains representative of the current views and needs of the population and that elected officials are accountable to the people. It makes political participation easier and allows for the infusion of new ideas and leaders into the political system, helping democracies adapt to new challenges and changing circumstances. Finally, it can ease conflicts as it provides a regular and structured way to peacefully navigate and negotiate competing interests. Serious conflicts may also be resolved by calling for elections as a way for the electorate to break the impasse. Regularly held elections are fundamental to the cyclical renewal of democratic mandates and ensure that governments remain by the people and for the people.

Representative 

Lastly, elections must be representative of its people. This is perhaps the most important aspect of elections, as the central goal of elections is to express their will. It is also the hardest aspect to achieve. The widespread, almost-universal acceptance of elections as integral to democracy is often accompanied by anger and frustration that elections create governments which are unreflective of the voters’ will and/or more responsive to intra-elite bargaining. But “representative” is highly contextual, and thus unlike the other three sections above, this section is not prescriptive but proposes a list of challenges which should be considered.

The most important question is who is represented by the electoral system. Some systems aim for elected representatives to represent a “natural” community, defined by such factors as administrative boundaries, geographic features, and communities of interest (e.g. members of a village or town). The rationale is then that each “natural” community elects a person who can speak for the community. However, even in the most homogenous communities, there are inevitably minorities and people who disagree—for example, do you agree with your parents/siblings/children on every single issue? Thus, some other systems aim to produce representatives for communities across the whole country, via proportional representation. Some systems even aim to correct for certain deficiencies by giving certain categories of voters greater weight. Other systems offer resident non-citizens the vote, believing that the involvement of non-citizens in the democracy increases their investment and engagement in the country, that wider participation in democracy also improves the ability of the democracy to represent all the people in the polity, and that people should have a voice in decisions which affect their rights (e.g. “no taxation without representation”).1

In all these systems, however, people still may be marginalised. There are people who are automatically excluded from voting. Every system excludes children up to a certain age, but that age may wildly differ from place to place, even in the same country. Some countries exclude convicted criminals during or even after their sentence. Others exclude those certified to be mentally ill or deficient. In the past, systems excluded non-land owners, people of certain races, and women.

Marginalisation is often more subtle. Minority groups who do not have the numbers to influence a country-wide vote, for example, or refugees and other people who are not legally residents but also in the country not by choice. Some systems attempt to correct for this by having special representatives elected for specific marginalised communities, such as indigenous groups. Likewise, some systems aim to produce a single winner from a vote, but other systems aim to produce multiple winners, believing that such an outcome is more representative. For example, the Philippines Senate elects 12 senators to six-year terms every three years. The 1st and 12th placed candidates are both treated equally, with an equal mandate, even though one received more votes than the other.

These systems are not mutually exclusive—they can be mixed to try and achieve a broad spread of voices. There are many variations in electoral systems, with the most common systems being first-past-the-post voting, block voting, the two-round (runoff) system, proportional representation, and ranked voting. Electoral systems that attempt to combine the benefits of different systems are known as mixed systems.

Equally important is to consider the body that the election is meant to produce. How many representatives are there? How are they apportioned? Who are they responsible to? Do you reserve seats for minority interest groups? Do you permit political party membership? What is the purpose of this body? Is there a threshold or requirement for membership? These important issues are not normally considered part of elections, but answering them is important both in the design of the body and consequently the design of the elections.

In any society, the well-educated, the wealthy, or members of the ruling establishment often have an inherent advantage, such as a greater voice and influence than others. As the goal is to hear all voices equally, this privilege must be corrected for. Ensuring that all voices are heard equally is one of the hardest challenges of electoral design. Strong rules around campaign financing and bribery, for example, are crucial, as we have discussed above. Publicly funded elections and equal media coverage are also important. 

Another issue is turnout. What happens if voters don’t bother to vote? A vote in which not all voters participate gives a far greater voice to those who do show up. Some countries, such as Singapore, Australia, and Uruguay make voting a legal obligation and enforce penalties (usually fines) for not showing up at the polls. But voters may also abstain as a choice, believing that abstention is also a form of a vote.

Ultimately, how elections are designed and how their results are determined deeply impact the result, and consequently electoral design is fundamental to any country’s democracy. It should be regularly and carefully debated through a democratic process, with the design updated as flaws become apparent.

Cheat Sheet!

How do I tell if my country has free, fair, regular, and representative elections?

[qsm quiz=5]

Having issues accessing the cheat sheet? You can use the PDF version of this exercise here.


Elections Alone Are Not Enough

Southeast Asia’s authoritarian states make clear that the holding of an election, in and of itself, is insufficient to establish or sustain democracy. Elections are an essential condition of democracy, but without democracy’s other essential elements, such as checks and balances, freedom from tyranny, minority rights, accountability and transparency, and justice and the rule of law, elections are not a guarantee of freedom. The holding of elections without other democratic rights means that those elections cannot be considered genuine, and are simply a means of political manipulation by those who seek absolute power. 

Reminder: democracy is a social contract, not a list of hard and fast rules. 

Even when elections are conducted freely, they are not a guarantee of a democratic outcome. When institutions are weak or lack independence, elections may easily be used by violent or authoritarian political groups to manipulate the will of the people and seize control of the government. Most infamously, the election of the Nazi Party in 1930s Germany was used by Adolf Hitler as the basis for undermining democracy (i.e. he argued that their election victory legitimised all their other actions). In Southeast Asia, Ferdinand Marcos (President of the Philippines 1965-1986) and Hun Sen (Prime Minister of Cambodia 1998-2023) both used legitimate election victories to justify their subsequent undermining of democracy, which enabled subsequent rigged elections that were then used to justify further authoritarianism. Both have left their countries impoverished and far worse off.

Artwork by Karin Josephine.

Case Study: Indonesia’s Continuing Search for Representative Government

As the largest, most populous country in Southeast Asia, Indonesia has throughout its history struggled with designing an electoral system that can genuinely represent a highly diverse country whose borders were arbitrarily determined by Dutch colonialism. It has redesigned its government and electoral system multiple times in search of better solutions. A brief history of Indonesian elections shows how the country has both sought to refine its electoral system and how the system has foundered on the challenges inherent in such an aim. 

The Temporary 1945 Constitution, or lack thereof

Indonesia declared independence on 17 August 1945. The 1945 Constitution was meant to be a temporary document. It was written rapidly (over three months) by a committee of 19, edited by a committee of 27, and approved by a body of 68 people. It outlined Pancasila as central to the nation’s identity and governance.

Recognising the vast diversity of Indonesia, the constitution emphasised deliberation among representatives as a key aspect of the Indonesian understanding of democracy, that sovereignty is in the hands of the people, and religious pluralism. One central tension was over whether Indonesia would be an Islamic state. Committee members Mohammad Hatta, Ki Bagus Hadikusumo, and Kasman Singodimejo successfully argued for the removal of Islamic elements, such as Shari’a law, from the draft Constitution. The trio argued that including such a clause would betray the representation of Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and other religious groups largely residing in Eastern Indonesia, who at this point were overwhelmingly underrepresented in the Board in charge of drafting the constitution. Aside from being perceived as discriminatory to Indonesian Christians and other religious groups, the trio was concerned about the refusal of Christian-majority Eastern regions to join the newly-formed Republic. But the constitution was also meant to be temporary, thus it was brief and somewhat ambiguous about the specifics of the electoral system. It did establish a presidential system with a People’s Consultative Assembly (lower house) and a Regional Representative Council (upper house), all of the members to be directly elected. A six-month transition period was envisioned, and a Central Indonesian National Committee, (Komite Nasional Indonesia Pusat, KNIP) was appointed to assist the President. President Sukarno (1945-67) and Vice-President Hatta (1945-56) appointed 137 members. Seeking to make the body more diverse and representative, they included a few representatives of Islamic groups, women, young people, and representatives from areas outside of Java.

Elections were initially promised for early 1946 but ultimately were never held due to the ongoing war of independence against the Netherlands. The constitution remained suspended until the war ended in 1949. 

While elections were not held, the composition of the government changed several times. From the beginning, there was resentment over the composition of the cabinet, which was dominated by men who had cooperated with the Japanese during the occupation, and the authoritarian presidential system. This led some KNIP members, including former underground leaders Sutan Sjahrir and Amir Sjarifuddin, to demand a more democratic system. On 7 October, a petition with 50 signatures demanding legislative powers for the KNIP was handed to Sukarno and Hatta. Both men agreed to implement this change, and on 16 October Hatta issued an edict, Vice-Presidential Edict No. X, on behalf of himself and Sukarno. This gave the KNIP joint legislative powers with the president. The KNIP was to delegate these powers to a Working Committee comprising members of the KNIP which would meet at least once every ten days. Thus the KNIP became the de facto legislature and the Working Committee the de facto cabinet. On 14 November a new cabinet was announced, with Sjahrir as Indonesia’s first Prime Minister and Amir as Defense Minister.

Faced with a more independent KNIP, Sukarno began changing the membership in his favour. In July 1946, the KNIP was reorganised by government decree and expanded to 200 members. Of these, 110 were elected, 60 represented organisations and 30 were nominated by the president. 

At the end of 1946, it appeared likely the body would reject the Linggardjati Agreement between the Dutch and the Indonesian republicans. In order to avoid this, Sukarno more than doubled the size of the KNIP to 514 members, packing the body with left-wing members who wanted Dutch military action to be ended as quickly as possible. This decision became effective in March 1947. The existing members who now found their voice diluted criticised the KNIP as no longer representing the will of the people.

Thus, while elections were never held in this period, we already see one of the major challenges: representativeness. The product of an electoral system is usually the legislature—but how is this composed? How many people, from where, representing who? Much depends on how we determine who should be represented. We also see what happens without the discipline and legitimacy of elections: Sukarno was able to manipulate the legislative body to suit his purposes by arbitrarily changing the composition of the legislature. 

The Federal 1949 Constitution, and its lack of a popular basis

Following international pressure on the Dutch, a negotiated independence was agreed upon. Both the Dutch and the Republican representatives were in general agreement about the new constitution, which included human rights guarantees and provided for a bicameral system of government, with a senate and a lower chamber. But the major sticking point was representation. The Dutch had governed the East Indies not as a single territory but as a collection of territories with different systems of government. They desired the preservation of this system as it would allow them to retain greater influence on the newly independent country. Among this collection of territories, the Republic of Indonesia was by far the largest territory. It was dominated by parts of Java and Sumatra and was far more populous and wealthier than other territories, such as Borneo/Kalimantan or the islands of Eastern Indonesia. Thus, the Dutch argued that a federal system was better as a unitary country would be discriminatory to these people.

To put it simply, the Dutch argued for a political system in which the territories were equal, regardless of size or strength. Each territory would have greater freedom to decide for itself how it was run and governed, delegating only specific powers to the federal government. This would correspondingly protect states in which minority ethnicities were the majority, ensuring they were not dominated by Java, the richest and most populous island.

An examination of the map of the United States of Indonesia, however, demonstrates the arbitrariness of these states: the states were incorporated largely based upon what territory either side controlled at an arbitrary moment in time. East Sumatra (December 1947), Madura and West Java (February 1948), South Sumatra (September 1948), and East Java (November 1948), were all states established via the Dutch reconquest. “Central Java” was basically a territory that was neither controlled by the Dutch nor the republicans. 

The United States of Indonesia. The constituent state of the Republic of Indonesia is shown in red. Other constituent states are shown in orange. Autonomous constituent entities are shown in yellow. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Indonesian republicans (including many residing in Dutch-held territories), meanwhile, favoured a unitary state, centralised in Jakarta. The boundaries were unreflective of how the people of the archipelago actually lived. It was argued that the Indonesian people should be the ones deciding their own boundaries. A unitary state was not only a rejection of colonialism, but an important principle underpinning a unitary state was that its people were equal, not its territories. A unitary system also allowed for greater flexibility and governance, where borders could be adjusted or the system refined to ensure better representation and effectiveness of governance.2

At the same time, however, such a system made it more likely that a majority across the whole country (whether geographic, ethnic, religious, or otherwise) would dominate the minority.

The 1949 Federal Constitution came into force with the formal handing over of sovereignty to the newly established United States of Indonesia on 27 December 1949. The Constitution had human rights guarantees and a bicameral system of government. The lower house People’s Representative Council had 150 members: 50 from the Republic of Indonesia, 100 from other 15 states in proportion to their population, and 18 members representing minorities (9 representing Chinese Indonesians, 6 representing “Indos” i.e. people of mixed Indonesian and European descent, and 3 representing Arab Indonesians). Meanwhile, in the upper house Senate, each of the 16 constituent states had 2 members each for a total of 32 members. Direct elections were planned for 1951.Thus, the solution to the question of representation was a mixed system. It was mostly proportional, but with over-representation of the smaller states and specific minorities to ensure that their voice would be heard. But the system was predicated on a political arrangement that was, ultimately, arbitrary and with no real basis in reality. Once the Dutch left, individual states began dissolving themselves and joining the Republic of Indonesia. In March and April 1950, all territories except East Sumatra and East Indonesia dissolved themselves into the Republic. One exception was South Maluku. When the 1949 treaty was broken, they unilaterally declared a fully independent Republic of South Maluku in April 1950. The chiefly Christian South Moluccans feared domination by the chiefly Muslim Republic. Their leaders argued that the treaty guaranteed autonomy for each of the states of the federation, and as the treaty had been broken, they were no longer bound to be a part of Indonesia. Indonesian forces quickly invaded Ambon and annexed South Maluku.3

On 17 August 1950, the last two states officially joined the Republic and the United States of Indonesia was dissolved. In its place, a unitary Republic of Indonesia was formed with a new provisional constitution.

Thus, even though the government envisioned by the 1949 constitution was more representative than the previous KNIP, it was a failed endeavour as it had no popular basis and elections were not held. But this period shows another quandary that designers of elections face: how to ensure representation of minorities, and majority minority areas, in the government.

The Provisional 1950 Constitution, and its deadlock

The 1950 Constitution was meant to be provisional and was based upon an agreement negotiated between the Prime Minister of the United States of Indonesia (RUSI), Mohammad Hatta (who also represented the two states of East Indonesia and East Sumatra), and the Prime Minister of the Republic of Indonesia, Abdul Halim. It agreed on a unicameral government, incorporating the RUSI House of Representatives, the RUSI Senate, the Republic’s legislature, and the Supreme Advisory Council of the Republic, resulting in a 236-member house. Article 134 of the Provisional Constitution of 1950 stated, “The Constitutional Assembly together with the government shall enact as soon as possible the Constitution of the Republic of Indonesia which shall replace this Provisional Constitution.” Thus Indonesia would have both a legislature for the governance of the country (the House of Representatives) and a Constitutional Assembly to write a new constitution. The nine-year period which followed would be Indonesia’s most democratic period until the Reform Era in 1999, but would also be marked by a tension between democratic aspirations and practical challenges of governance.

The quest for representativeness proved a major challenge. Indonesia was (and remains) extremely diverse. Consequently, the legislature was also diverse. Each party represented very different interests and visions for the new country. No party commanded anywhere near a majority in the legislature, so every government had to be a coalition government. Their leaders were inexperienced and faced massive challenges, especially widespread poverty stemming from over 200 years of colonialism. Consequently, successive cabinets were unable to maintain a consensus and governments repeatedly fell. Despite these adverse circumstances, historians today have a favourable opinion of the governments of this period, and noted their achievements in some areas, particularly education. 

It was hoped that elections would resolve the deadlock. In 1955, elections were finally held for both the legislature and the Constitutional Assembly, with candidates directly elected in single constituencies. These elections were free and fair–they would be the only free and fair elections held in Indonesia until 1999. They were also highly successful. The total population of Indonesia was 77,987,979, with 43,104,464 having the right to vote (citizens 18 and above or citizens who were married). Valid votes cast amounted to 37,785,299 votes for the legislature and 37,837,105 votes for the Assembly, with almost 88% turnout recorded in both cases (by comparison, recent elections have averaged around 75% turnout with a high of 81%). However, the elections merely confirmed the diversity of Indonesia, producing almost identically divided results. Ironically, the elections even sharpened and legitimised existing divisions in Indonesian politics.

The Assembly, for example, had a whopping 514 members, one per 150,000 Indonesian citizens. They represented 34 parties, with four large parties: the Indonesian National Party (Partai Nasional Indonesia, PNI, 119 seats), Masyumi (112 seats), Nahdlatul Ulama (91 seats) and the Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, PKI, 80 seats). The Assembly was dominated by two roughly equal major blocs. The nationalist and left-wing parties aiming for an Indonesia based on Pancasila were led by PNI and PKI, while the Islamic parties aiming for an Islamic Indonesia were led by Masyumi and NU. The Pancasila bloc held 53.3% of the seats while the Islamic bloc had 44.8%. The legislature had a similar profile, with PNI and PKI on one side and Masyumi and NU on the other. Both elections arguably succeeded in producing bodies which represented the massive diversity of opinion and values across the entire archipelago. The problem was that they could not agree on anything.

The decade saw much political instability, with governments falling one after the other. In this time, seven major coalition governments rose led by six different prime ministers. The situation in the Assembly was worse because while the legislature was generally ruled by majority vote, the constitution had to be approved by two-thirds of the Assembly. This rendered the Assembly’s task of drawing up a permanent constitution difficult as they simply could not agree. The principal issue was the role of Islam in the new state. In July 1958, army Chief of Staff Abdul Haris Nasution suggested returning to the 1945 Constitution. The army organised demonstrations in favour of this, and the idea gained popularity amongst a number of political parties. Unsurprisingly, the Assembly could not agree on this either and failed to obtain the necessary two-thirds majority for such a return. On 5 July 1959, after nearly a decade of political deadlock, a frustrated President Sukarno issued a decree to dissolve the Constitutional Assembly, restoring the 1945 Constitution of Indonesia.

Indonesia’s short-lived period of liberal democracy demonstrates the challenge inherent in designing elections, especially in a highly diverse country. Often, voters desire elections to have a decisive outcome and clarify the future of the country; however, elections can also sharpen and harden divisions or introduce more uncertainty into the system. Thus, it is crucial to consider how we design elections and the bodies they produce.

Artwork by Karin Josephine.

Guided Democracy, 1959-1965

Sukarno believed that the parliamentary system implemented during the liberal democracy period in Indonesia was ineffective due to the divisive political situation. Instead, he sought to establish a system based on his interpretation of the traditional village system of discussion and consensus, which occurred under the guidance of village elders. He called it “Guided Democracy”, with himself as “Father of the Nation”.

In rolling back to the 1945 constitution, Sukarno established a new unicameral legislature (Mutual Assistance House of Representatives, Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat Gotong Royong, DPR-GR). It was no longer based on the results of the 1955 election, but which was determined by the President, who could appoint and dismiss members at will. Political opponents were sidelined in the process, and some who opposed the establishment of the DPR-GR refused to take their seats. As Masyumi and the Indonesian Socialist Party did not agree with Sukarno, they were given no seats, meaning there was no longer a parliamentary opposition (he subsequently disbanded both parties in 1960). A number of representatives from various functional groups including the military were also appointed. As of mid-1962, there were 281 members; 130 from 10 political parties, 150 sectoral representatives and 1 representative from West Irian (West Papua).

The responsibilities and duties of parliament were dramatically curtailed. It was reduced to helping the government implement its policies. In 1960 it produced only 9 laws, compared with 87 in 1958 and 29 in 1959. It became little more than a rubber stamp for Sukarno’s policies. In this period, there were also no elections. Sukarno had effectively become a dictator, who drew power from balancing between four main factions in Indonesian politics: the army, the secular nationalists, Islamic groups, and the communists. 

Unsurprisingly, this did not translate into better governance. From the late 1950s, political conflict and economic deterioration worsened. By the mid-1960s, the cash-strapped government had to scrap critical public sector subsidies, annual inflation was between 500% to 1,000%, export revenues were shrinking, infrastructure crumbling, and factories were operating at minimal capacity with negligible investment. Severe poverty and hunger were also widespread. 

The New Order, 1966-1998

Following the 30 September Movement in 1965 which was officially blamed on the PKI, a widespread massacre of PKI members, and alleged sympathisers, occurred. 500,000 to 1 million Indonesians were killed in the government’s attempt to wipe out communism. The massacre consolidated the power of the military, which in several cases orchestrated the purges to begin with, with US and UK approval. The House of Representatives (DPR) was purged of PKI members, and Suharto became President.

In 1969, the government passed an election law that set the membership of the DPR at 360 elected and 100 appointed members. The number of representatives from the military increased to 75. Elections were finally held in 1971, having been delayed to allow preparations to ensure a victory for the government’s Golkar, an ostensibly non-political non-ideological federation of mass organisations that represented the gamut of Indonesian society. The official campaign ran from 29 April to 28 June. Under the rules, election participants were forbidden to question the state Pancasila ideology, the 1945 Constitution, and the government’s policies or their implementation. “Disrespectful” comments about state officials or leaders of foreign countries were also banned. Permission for election rallies had to be obtained in advance, and all election materials had to be submitted to the authorities for approval. There was also a specific ban on “partisan use” of the name of former president Sukarno, which affected the PNI campaign in particular as two of Sukarno’s children, Guntur and Rachmawati, campaigned for the party in the early stages. The campaign period was followed by a week-long “calming down” period, with no campaigning and all election posters within 300 metres of polling stations being removed, before the election was finally held on 3 July 1971.

The system of allocating seats was changed from that of the 1955 election to reduce the number of parties winning seats in the legislature. All seats were to be allocated in the regional electoral districts, rather than being divided up based on national results. The government also disqualified large numbers of candidates from the political parties. Hardest hit was PNI, with 171 disqualifications leaving it with 506 candidates. Islam-based parties also lost candidates: the Indonesian Muslims’ Party (Parmusi, the legal successor to Masyumi) lost 141, and Nahdlatul Ulama lost 24.

Methods used to maximise Golkar’s vote during this era included:

  • Reducing the number of opponents: In 1973, the existing political parties were forced to merge into either PPP or PDI. These were the only parties allowed to contest general elections.
  • Weakening the remaining opponents: The two political parties were forbidden to criticise government policy, and the government had to approve all slogans they used. Furthermore, they were not allowed to organise at the village level (where the majority of Indonesians live). Their candidates had to be vetted by the government. 
  • Coercion: Civil servants and state- and regional-owned enterprises employees were compulsorily members of the Golkar-linked Employees’ Corps of the Republic of Indonesia (KORPRI) and hence ordered to support Golkar, or face accusations of insubordination and even forced relocation to a remote region. Private sector workers were reminded of the need for “stability”. The government did little to persuade people that their vote would be secret—on the contrary, voters still at school were warned by teachers of a link between their choice at the ballot box and exam success.
  • The vote-counting process: The Golkar votes were counted first, then those of the two other parties. In the 1997 election, for example, by 9 p.m. on the day after voting, Golkar had already been awarded 94% of its eventual vote. By contrast, the PPP had been credited with less than 10% of its final tally.
  • Vote-rigging: Although ballot boxes were counted in public, with the ballot papers being held up and scores marked on boards, irregularities were frequently reported.
  • Multiple voting: There was no effective way of determining who had already voted, allowing many to do so more than once.

For the remainder of the New Order, elections were held every five years and Golkar won an absolute majority at every election. Throughout this period, the parliament did not produce a single law on its own initiative, its role reduced to passing laws proposed by the government. Suharto also refused to even open any dialogue about amending the constitution, and as such, Indonesia used the 1945 constitution until he fell from power in 1998.

The Reform Era, 1999 to Present

The fall of Suharto in 1998 marked the beginning of the Reformasi (Reform) era, which brought significant changes to Indonesia’s electoral system.

The first post-Suharto election in 1999 saw a return to a multi-party system, with many parties participating. While in this election the president was still elected by the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR)—not directly by the people—constitutional amendments in 2002 introduced major reforms, including the direct election of the president and vice president starting from 2004. This had a much greater influence on the popular vote. In 2004, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was elected as the first directly-elected president (6th overall). Another significant reform was the introduction of direct elections for regional heads (governors, mayors, and district heads). This increased the accountability of local leaders to their constituents. 

Under the current system, there are two houses, the 575-member DPR (lower house) and a 136-seat DPD (upper house), in addition to provincial and municipal legislative councils. The president is directly elected for a five-year term, renewable only once. Candidates have to be nominated by a political party or a coalition of parties representing at least 20% of the seats in the DPR or 25% of the votes in the last election. Members of the DPR are elected by proportional representation from multi-candidate constituencies. Currently, there are 77 constituencies in Indonesia, and each returns 3-10 Members of Parliament based on population. Seat distribution is done with the Webster/Sainte-Laguë method. There is a gender quota requiring at least 30% of registered candidates to be female, which translated into 126 of 575 (22%) DPR seats won by women in 2019. A 4% parliamentary threshold is set for parties to be represented in the DPR.

Members of the DPD are elected by a single non-transferable vote. Each of Indonesia’s provinces, regardless of the size and population, returns four senators. Candidates for the DPD are not allowed to be members of a political party. 

As in the liberal democracy period of 1950-59, Indonesia’s diversity means that no one party is able to secure an outright majority in a democratic election. Parties have needed to work together in coalition governments. However, unlike the 1950-59 period, Indonesia has seen remarkable stability in this period, with Presidents and governments finishing their terms and peacefully handing over power in the 2009, 2014, and 2019 elections. At the same time, the dominance of Java and men continues to be seen in the Presidency, which has always been held by someone ethnically or culturally Javanese, and only once by a woman (who was the daughter of a previous President).

The voting age in Indonesia is 17, and registration is done via having a valid ID card (KTP). This means that (as before) people who are or were married below that age can also vote, as marriage qualifies one for an ID Card. Voting is not compulsory, and polling day is not a public holiday, although companies are expected to give employees time off to vote [See here for a summary of the current system]. Indonesians living overseas can vote in either the embassies or consulates, mobile polling stations, or by post. Partly to make voting easier, starting from the 2019 elections, Indonesia ran all its elections—president, legislature, governors and mayors—simultaneously on the same date, so that Indonesians only need to turn up once to do all their voting.

This brief sketch of the current system shows all the attempts to have the government be representative of the Indonesian people, while also trying to balance minority voices like smaller provinces, or women. The Webster/Sainte-Laguë distribution method has the lowest average bias in apportionment among various methods and empirically shows the best proportionality behaviour and more equal seats-to-votes ratio for different sized parties among apportionment methods. At the same time, political fragmentation and instability are addressed by instituting thresholds of popular support for the Presidency and DPR seats.

While the reforms have significantly increased the influence of the popular vote, challenges remain. Logistically, the challenge of running unified elections across the massive archipelago has led to significant issues, including polling officials allegedly dying from overwork and stress. The sheer number of votes to be counted has delayed election results, causing uncertainty. The influence of money on the system remains a persistent issue, clientelism is rife, and vote-buying in particular continues to be a problem. Voter education is also very difficult across a huge and generally poor country, where access to resources and media remains uneven. To win, parties need to run massive campaigns across the entire country at multiple levels, straining the resources of smaller parties and magnifying the inherent advantage of the established political elites and the rich. Certain topics and ideas (such as socialism, religion, LGBTQ issues, Indonesian colonialism in Papua, or the events of 30 September 1965) remain very difficult to address properly due to official censorship. Many other freedoms (e.g. expression, assembly, thought) that are required for good elections are also lacking. Whether further reviews and positive reforms will take place is unknown.

In conclusion, Indonesia has seen many extremes in its electoral system design. These include designs which sought to maximise representation versus designs that sought to minimise it or even exclude people; designs which fostered instability versus designs which sought to minimise even the possibility of instability; designs which gave more power to elected representatives versus designs which virtually removed all power from them; and elections held at clockwork regularity vs irregular elections or no elections at all. Through all of this, Indonesia continues to grapple with the fundamental question of how to design an electoral system that creates sufficient representation and produces good governance. As the fourth-most populous country, with incredible geographic, ethnic, and religious diversity, including the largest Muslim population in the world, events in Indonesia have global significance. It can and should offer a strong model of democratic governance and show how free, fair, regular, and representative elections can thrive even in the most complex of circumstances.

Artwork by Karin Josephine.

Conclusion

Elections are the most universally recognised mechanism of democracy, but there is an unfortunate tendency to treat it as the only mechanism of democracy. For an election to serve its proper function, it must be free, fair, regular, and representative. However, this is extremely difficult to achieve. 

Regardless of how an election is designed, however, it must be remembered that elections are neither definitive nor conclusive. Firstly, elections are the opening of a new phase of negotiations, not the end of a previous phase. Democracy is a never-ending process of negotiation within a society, and elections are merely punctuation. They are just one of many mechanisms through which views are expressed and issues resolved, and should not be seen as more important than, for example, citizen consultation, legislative deliberation, town hall, protests, petitions, or any other democratic mechanism.

Equally, there is an unfortunate tendency to treat elections as the primus inter pares of democratic principles, by arguing that an election vote, reflecting the will of the people, can trump other principles. On the contrary, all of the many democratic principles are equally necessary. An election can never legitimise the overturning of established democratic governance, the imposition of a dictatorship, or violence. It can never justify the oppression of minorities, the undermining of justice, or the abrogation of any other principle of democracy. It cannot legitimately be used to introduce political conditions of organised violence or state repression that prevent genuine and free elections from being held again. In such instances, elections are not signs of democracy, but rather a mask to anti-democratic political structures—one of the surest signs of an authoritarian state.

Footnotes
  1. The two major examples are the Commonwealth of Nations, where Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Malawi (all foreign residents, not only Commonwealth citizens), Mauritius, Namibia (all foreign residents), New Zealand (all foreign residents), Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and the United Kingdom extend voting rights to Commonwealth citizens (including Malaysia and Singapore) who are legally resident in their countries; and the European Union, where citizens of other member states have the right to vote in local elections in their country of residence.
    Other examples include Uruguay, which allows 15-year residents full national voting rights; Venezuela, which allows 10 year residents full voting rights; Hong Kong, where the right of Hong Kong permanent residents to vote is guaranteed in Article 26 of the Basic Law (nationality is not even mentioned); Jersey, where the right to vote is determined by residency, not citizenship; South Korea, where foreign nationals aged 19 years and older who have lived in South Korea for more than three years after obtaining permanent resident visas have the right to vote in local elections; Portugal and Brazil, which grant reciprocal arrangements for their citizens to enjoy the rights of citizenship after a set period of time; and some cantons of Switzerland, which allow legal residents to vote in local elections. ↩︎
  2. Compare how the Federation of Malaya/North Borneo/Sarawak/Singapore responded to the British proposal of federalism for Malaysia, and we understand why Sukarno objected so violently to the creation of Malaysia. ↩︎
  3. A government-in-exile continues to exist in the Netherlands, and the Republic of South Maluku has been a member state of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) since 1991. ↩︎
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  1. The viewpoint here beautifully encapsulates the intricate role of elections within democracy. It aptly addresses the common misconception that elections alone define democratic systems, emphasizing that they are just one component in a broader tapestry of democratic mechanisms. The analogy of elections being punctuation marks within an ongoing democratic narrative, rather than the conclusion, resonates strongly.

    Moreover, it rightly cautions against the misinterpretation of elections as the supreme democratic principle, challenging the notion that election outcomes can override or negate other fundamental democratic values. This stance is crucial in safeguarding against the misuse of elections as a legitimizing tool for anti-democratic actions or structures.

    Overall, this perspective eloquently stresses the need for a holistic approach to democracy, advocating for the acknowledgment of various democratic mechanisms and principles beyond the ballot box. It serves as a timely reminder of the complexities involved in nurturing and preserving genuine democratic practices within societies.